The football field at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach was turned into a map of the world Saturday morning as 10 interns from the high school teamed up with college students and mentors from Northrop Grumman to tackle real-world problems.

The mission: give the students a taste of daily life as an engineer.

The Global Innovation Summit was put on by Northrop Grumman, global-security company, which works with  U.S. military on technology, strategy and logistics. The company partnered with the school this year to teach students how to fight simulated wildfires as they pop up in unforeseen locations.

The goal of the simulation: To design, build, test and fly a variety of drones to address natural disasters that would be too dangerous to deploy humans on-site to mitigate.

“It’s really a partnership where our engineering students are able to work with their mentors and their interns and everything like that,” said Leanne Weaver, Technology and Engineering lead at Mira Costa High School. “This is what they want to do. If you’re taking engineering in high school then you kind of already have that, ‘maybe this is the route that I want to go.’”

The students were exposed to the daily grind as they put roughly 20 hours a week into the program. Noa Duke Frank, 16, said there were “some long nights,” but Weaver assured none of the students quit due to the workload.

“We treat the high school interns the same as the college interns,” Chris Steele, Northrop Grumman Global Summit Program Manager said. “They’re a part of the team, they come to lab with us, they work with us. We have the same expectations of them as we do any other interns.”

Students and interns worked for eight weeks on five different teams, each designed to fulfill a specific role in the mission:

Plan the tasks and operate a surveillance plane, a fire-bomber plane, a drop quad-copter, a rover vehicle and a heavy quad-copter.

A group of tents was set up in front of the football field, blocking any visuals the students had of the map that simulated deploying vehicles from a remote location without being able to see exactly where the fire was located.

The surveillance plane scouted out the fires. Then, the teams and their technology went to work:

  • A fire-bomber plane took off and deployed fire suppressant;
  • The drop quad-copter deployed medical supplies to the survivors in the area;
  • The heavy quad-copter delivered the rovers;
  • And the rovers extinguished the fire.

“Not only do they get the engineering skills but they get the teamwork, they understand the hours, they understand the collaboration and the perseverance and failure — which is something really important for the kids to experience,” Weaver said. “So, this is the real hands-on application but not a teacher telling you what to do.”

After Northrop Grumman visited Mira Costa to invite the teens to participate, Frank decided it was something he was interested in trying out.

Frank said learning to cope with the failures the team encountered — and to respond and recover from them — was a vital part of the experience.

“I came to watch the demo and it just seemed cool to build something from scratch with a team,” said Frank who served on the “Heavy Quad” team they titled, “Murphy’s Lawyers,” due to all the problems the team has encountered.

“I thought it was going to be more high school students but I’m on a team with all college people. But it’s pretty fun just getting to see them work, especially because they’re all so much smarter than me.”

Murphy’s Lawyers dealt with so many problems, including a plane crash, they zip-tied a block of wood to the top part of their pop-up tent — for members to knock on for good luck.

“They’re just had a string of bad luck. Everything breaks constantly with that group,” Steele said. “They’ve burnt out four motors, four autopilots and fried a couple power distribution boards.”

But it was all a part of the learning experience.

“This is really all about STEM engagement and really encouraging the community to get involved with it. A large part of that is done through Mira Costa,” Steele said. “We are trying to recruit students who are possibly interested in STEM.”

Contact Lisa Jacobs or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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