Can High School Students Design a New Airport?: With NUTC Students' Help, the Task may be Attainable.

(O’Hare International Airport/October 25, 2013)

Current and former NUTC students worked closely with the Women's Transportation Seminar (WTS) Greater Chicago Chapter and the Chicago Department of Aviation to host a day-long Transportation YOU outreach event at O’Hare International Airport. Thirty-six students from Evanston Township High School and Michele Clark High School participated. Transportation YOU is a nation-wide, hands-on WTS program to encourage and introduce young girls ages 13-18 to transportation careers.  The students toured O’Hare and learned about transportation careers from employees working on various airport and airline projects at O’Hare and Midway and WTS volunteers. “In Chicago, we are working with partners in industry and education to offer programs and activities that connect classroom learning to real world careers. We feel this approach will inspire enthusiasm for transportation as well as enrichment for school coursework,” said WTS Greater Chicago Chapter President, Lillian Yan.

To enhance the students’ experience during the tour, NU PhD graduates Elaine McKenzie (Cambridge Systematics) and Laurence Audenaerd (The MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development) developed a class project together with current NU PhD student and WTS Transportation YOU coordinator Charlotte Frei. The project introduced students to the complex planning and operations involved in airports and civil engineering and challenged them to design a new airport for a hypothetical city. Audenaerd, McKenzie and Frei lectured and advised Evanston Township High School Students in the classroom to help them begin their project. Students split into teams and had four days in class to work on their design projects before the tour.            

During the tour, students watched cargo and passenger planes land on O’Hare’s new runway and stood under the approach path to see planes fly overhead. Students saw huge machinery used to clear snow from the runways and witnessed O’Hare’s fire department responding to an emergency test fire, extinguishing it within 3 minutes.

Students watched planes land on runway 10 center while Johnny Jackson (CH2M Hill) and Cyle Cantrell (CDA) described aircraft and construction.  The team consulted Science in Society’s outreach experts Mike Kennedy, PhD and Rebecca Daugherty, PhD in order to develop the project and organize the event. The project aligned with the National Research Council’s Next Generation Science Standards which connect science and engineering concepts and promote student engagement.

Small group career talks were held with volunteers rotating amongst the student groups to encourage student participation and interaction. This “speed dating” style gave the students an opportunity to ask questions about the airport projects, airport operations and volunteers’ career paths. “Students told us they were impressed by how many people it takes to manage such a complicated environment. They enjoyed learning about the different roles, and one student even asked to apply for a job,” said Frei.

After the tour, students had four more days to design their airport for a hypothetical city. Following the tour, Audenaerd, McKenzie, Frei and Madison Fitzpatrick (PhD Candidate, Civil Engineering) returned to ETHS to pose as city council members evaluating proposed airport plans from competing teams. Students presented their airports’ capacity estimates, environmental impacts, and runway, terminal and maintenance facility lay-outs. Based on students’ and instructor feedback, the team is improving the project for broader dissemination, and they hope to return to the airport during the spring semester with another group of aspiring airport planners.

With such enthusiastic student feedback, the WTS Greater Chicago chapter is looking to future events. Students were interested in some of the specific responsibilities of different engineers and planners, so WTS will be working with corporate partners to host other tours and organize job shadowing.

Firms interested in learning more or hosting activities (including airport tours) can find more information at: and

Tiffany Green (CDA), discusses the OMP and terminal improvements with high school students during Transportation YOU career talks; Andres Garcia (AECOM) is pictured in the background meeting with two other students