For an aspiring aerospace engineer, the sky's the limit

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It was the gold visor on astronauts’ helmets that initially drew sophomore Jason Cornelius into the aerospace engineering field.

“When I was in 7th grade, my mom told me the gold visor on an astronaut helmet was worth a lot of money,” the Mountaintop, Pennsylvania, native recalled. “I wanted to look it up.”

Cornelius learned that gold is electroplated onto the inside of the visor to protect the astronaut’s eyes from solar radiation. And though the amount of gold wasn’t as much as his mother thought, Cornelius was hooked. “That’s what made me so interested.”

The rising aerospace engineering sophomore spent this past summer working in the Vertical Lift Research Center of Excellence (VLRCOE), studying dynamic instability in the rotors used by helicopters.

“It’s really finding ways to not hit the rotor’s instability range or developing new ways to damp it out,” he said.

Cornelius explained that all rotorcraft can experience flutter in their rotors when they hit a certain speed. “If you stay at that speed, it will give the instability time to build upon itself, creating high stress that will lead to failure.”

He continued, “So aircraft designers and pilots just avoid it. The aircraft’s rotation speed is chosen to stay away from instability.”

Cornelius’s role in the lab centers on running instability experiments on a test stand in the center’s laboratory in Engineering Unit C to match predicted outcomes.

The work is more than just pure science and engineering, however. Cornelius said it also ties into a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach effort.

Ed Smith, professor of aerospace engineering and the VLRCOE’s director, said reaching out to young people and exposing them to the STEM fields is a major priority for his lab and the College of Engineering, including helping to develop an aerospace technical program at a high school in Bergen County, New Jersey.

“Engaging, inspiring, and educating the best and brightest has been a long-standing objective of the Penn State VLRCOE," Smith said. "We have been working with K-12 tour groups on campus, hosting Haunted Helicopter Labs and supporting indigenous STEM efforts in schools via outreach activities for 20 years. It is very rewarding work, and excellent training for our graduate students here at Penn State. They need to relate the high-tech subjects they are learning to wide audiences. It is a skill that will serve them well.”

In addition to working on the program’s dynamics section, Cornelius worked on other modules for the school.

“Along with bringing these test stands to the school as lab activities, I’ve been developing some other activities to demonstrate basic aerospace concepts without the understanding of college-level things such as vectors, calculus and physics. These activities include an induced-drag demonstrator using airfoils; flat plates and spheres on the ends of pinwheels to show that the airfoil will spin the longest -- the other two have a higher induced drag; Chinese tops which will involve a competition to increase the duration, stability and other parameters involved in their flight; and the making of balsa wood gliders which teaches concepts such as aerodynamic stability,” he said.

For Cornelius, the choice to spend his summer getting involved in his chosen vocation was a no-brainer.

“If I stayed home after my first year at Penn State, I would be doing the same as everyone else and I didn’t want that.”

So instead Cornelius planned an extremely busy summer. After he finished the spring semester, he traveled to China to take part in an immersive month-long engineering design class.

After he returned in early June, Cornelius began his research experience with Smith’s lab, putting in approximately 28 hours a week.

The rest of his week was rounded out by serving as a teaching assistant in an engineering design course taught by Xinli Wu, assistant professor of engineering design, and a few hours a week volunteering with an experimental wind turbine project run by Dennis McLaughlin, professor of aerospace engineering.

The Crestwood High School graduate said he was excited about his major as soon as he got to campus last fall, immediately getting involved with the student chapter of the American Helicopter Society.

After talking with the group’s president, he was directed to Ed Smith. “In the very first week, I asked Dr. Smith if I could get involved in the VLRCOE.”

Smith said Cornelius could -- but only if the Schreyer Scholar managed to do well in his classes during his first year at the University.

“Jason showed a great deal of maturity and enthusiasm when he reached out to get involved with research activities," Smith said. "The Schreyer Honors College has done well to develop and encourage outstanding students like him. We were able to make a plan for summer and beyond.  Hopefully Jason will continue to learn, and contribute to our mission.”

With his first college summer wrapped up, Cornelius is already thinking about next summer and said he may apply to become an intern with aircraft manufacturer Boeing.

“The great thing about having done this experience this summer was it helped me decide what I’m interested in,” he explained. “It helped me decide I want to get more into aerodynamics and structural controls.”

Last Updated May 12, 2016