Mason and the U.S. Navy partner to promote STEM activities

Students were asked to devise a fast way to detect erosion on the polymer metals used to make the blades of U.S. Navy helicopters. Getty Images photo.

Two teams of George Mason University seniors majoring in mechanical engineering are spending this semester applying what they’ve learned to a U.S. Navy-sponsored senior capstone project with real-world applications.

That’s just what Oscar Barton Jr., chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering in Mason's Volgenau School of Engineering, had in mind with the $265,000 grant he received from the U.S. Department of the Navy. The partnership pairs Mason and the U.S. Navy through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outreach activities designed to expose Mason students and faculty to a wide range of naval technical problems, while also aiding the U.S. Navy in its outreach to young people.

“In just one short semester, [the seniors] will be practicing engineers,” Barton said. “They need to experience what it takes to go from concept to reality to application.”

Under the terms of the grant, the U.S. Navy has sponsored two senior capstone projects, each lead by teams of five students, all of whom are under the supervision of Robert Gallo, the director of senior projects and professor of practice within the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“We wanted to challenge our students to leverage their engineering experiences in pursuit of solutions to real-world problems presented by the Navy,” Gallo said.

In the fall semester, the two student teams were requested to devise a rapid way to detect erosion on the polymer metals used to make the blades of U.S. Navy helicopters serving in severe weather environments, such as the desert or around salt water.

Helicopter wings see erosion in ship-to-shore transitions, said Kerem Dokuzcan, one of the student team leaders. As helicopters get closer to water or sand, they pick up those materials, causing erosion on the helicopter wings that would be problematic if left unchecked. The wings would have to be serviced or changed less frequently if materials or protective coatings could be used to lower the erosion rate.

It’s a problem that has plagued U.S. Navy warfighters for years, but Mason students have the opportunity to help find a solution that could have a lasting impact.

“The objective of our project is to create an apparatus that can provide a relative ranking of a material’s erosion rate,” Dokuzcan said. “Our apparatus is meant to give the U.S Navy a cheap and quick ranking of a material’s [or] protective coating’s erosion rates, as current tests are neither of those.”

Along the way, the Mason students will learn the necessity of working together while adhering to real-world deadlines and strict technical and presentation specifications. Both teams will present their completed capstone projects on May 2.

“Working with the U.S Navy is a great honor, and the fact that it could possibly save American lives is extremely motivational,” Dokuzcan said. “My team and I have been working diligently to not only meet requirements given to us by the Office of Naval Research, but to surpass expectations in order to give future students the same opportunity.”

Barton, who spent 22 years teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy prior to coming to Mason, will oversee promoting outreach for both students and teachers. This includes developing the George Mason University U.S. Navy Ambassadors Program, in which Mason undergraduates will visit a number of local, low-income middle and high schools to promote participation in Navy STEM-related programs through face-to-face forums. On Feb. 28, the department is partnering with Engineers On Deck, a nonprofit STEM education organization, to offer a workshop for teachers in Prince William County, Virginia, to enhance readiness and awareness of Navy STEM programs. They’ll also be making their case at the annual Engineering Youth Conference held prior to the start of Engineers Week each February.

“I want to be able to provide those teachers with the resources and experiences necessary to be a conduit for a student to learn a STEM activity,” Barton said. “This will broaden the opportunity for a more diverse group of students.”