Operation Airlift | STEM Design Challenge

A one-of-a-kind, near-space exploration, team-competition for teens, mentored by STEM professionals.  

Duration of Project: September 2010 – April 2013
Organization: Adler Planetarium, Chicago
Audience: Approximately 100 8-9th grade students, a dozen teachers, a dozen mentors, and support staff per yearly event.


Project Description

Operation Airlift is the culminating design challenge for a series of exploratory, hands-on, inquiry-based, STEM career-pathway field trip and after school club programs designed for the Adler Planetarium’s teen and school partnership programs. The challenge concept is based on the Adler’s Far Horizons near-space exploration program, a citizen-science program to develop high-altitude balloon and nano-satelite experiments using publicly available equipment driven by volunteer participation.

Teams of students compete to hack, remix, and repurpose a Snap Circuits Rover electronics kit to build a remotely operated vehicle (ROV): a remote-controlled airship attached to a helium-filled weather balloon used by Far Horizons for their experiments. During the challenge, teams earn points for successfully building the ROV and completing performance tasks, but more importantly, for working as a team, developing a strong team brand, presenting their team work to others, and communicating through social media to share and find ideas with other teams.

Successfully completing tasks embedded throughout the day requires careful time and resource management. For each embedded task, badges are awarded to the team, which unlock access to more advanced activities or spaces, like the supply depot, the testing grounds, or digital tech.

Each team is broken up into roles that facilitate the activities, including: a project manager, engineers, researchers, designers, and communications managers. The variety of roles engages a broader set of interests that allow for fuller participation from all students. Student teams are mentored by a classroom teacher, or a club facilitator, and a STEM professional volunteer.

The series of field trips and clubs meetings that preceded the final challenges build general student agency through teamwork, role identification, digital media, communication and design, but specific activities target hard skills in motors, buoyancy, and circuits. Participating in the final challenge does not require attending all, or any of the skill building activities.


User-Centered Methodology

As a fundamental component of the Adler’s Air Force Academy High School Partnership, the user-design process for Operation Airlift followed the same design and evaluation strategies that are outlined and described in the linked page. However, special attention was provided to Operation Airlift to create a marketable product-offering for potential, future local school partners, beyond Air Force Academy.

In evaluations of the preceding field trips and club sessions, teachers reported a disconnect in student perception and awareness of how the activities done in the classroom contributed to the final event. A promotional video was produced in partnership with a local college arts program intern that would inspire student and teacher interest in the program, while also providing a clearer visual sense of the final, culminating objective.

Operation Airlift featured a very specific brand design to inspire and maximize student and teacher interest and participation in what were largely volunteer activities. Promotional posters, with inspirational but intentionally mysterious messaging, were used before the event as teasers to strategically build interest. Students self-selected into teacher-led teams, denoted by the caricatures in the posters below.

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The signature astronaut holding a balloon icon was a remix of existing Adler and the Far Horizons iconography.

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Color themes were used to distinguish between student participants and adult mentors, which you can see in the event gallery below.

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Related Evidence & Artifacts

You can find some curricular materials available on the website below, which was used by students and teachers to track progress during the challenge.

Operation Airlift Website

Two years after my departure from the Adler Planetarium and my last Operation Airlift in 2013, The Adler held it’s fifth annual Operation Airlift in 2015. However, this was the first time that the event was located inside the museum itself! I was happy to serve as a STEM mentor this year and my team, “the Destroyers” came in third of eight. Yet, our presentation was my favorite in all five years. It was a Webmaker Thimble website designed and built by an 8th grader.

Destroyers ROV Thimble Make