Using Wind Tunnels, Students Observe the Invisible Flow of Air


As a classroom topic, aerodynamics is uniquely challenging. How does one study the flow of air over an object? Most of the time, you can only draw it, test it, discuss it, imagine it. 
Now, however, some Cranford students get to actually see it.

A grant from the Cranford Fund for Educational Excellence paid for flow visualization wind tunnels at Orange Avenue and Hillside Avenue schools. These tabletop wind tunnels allow for a colored vapor to be injected when the air is flowing; watching the vapor, students can see exactly what the air looks like as it moves over whatever’s inside—either flowing smoothly or hitting some resistance here and there.


The wind tunnel is ideal for illustrating concepts of aerodynamics and wind resistance that can be hard for some students to envision, said grant co-applicant Kristen Girone, a teacher of applied technology at Hillside Avenue School.


“Aerodynamics is not always the easiest concept to reinforce with students, because we're talking about air. It’s really abstract,” she said.


During a recent class, her students fashioned model cars—using Play-Doh—that they then tested in the wind tunnel. “Now they get to see their actual car in the wind tunnel and see the air going past it, so it makes a total connection for every student,” she said.


The experience is valuable for students whether they go on to become mechanical engineers or simply scientifically literate citizens who, for instance, know how a car’s design might affect its fuel efficiency, she said. One student has already used the wind tunnel to tweak the design of his CO2 dragster, which then broke a speed record during a race held annually at the school.


The wind tunnel immediately draws attention in the classroom, she said—“Student walk in and say, ‘Is that a wind tunnel? When are we going to use it?” She and her counterparts at Orange Avenue School are planning a three-year progression of aerodynamics lessons, starting in sixth grade, that incorporates wing design and a rocketry project as well as students’ individual projects.


“The students have responded so well to it,” she said. “This is an amazing tool to have.”