Skunk Works ‘takes over’ Palmdale classroom

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Photograph by Diane Betzler

Students at Palmdale High School in Palmdale, Calif., had a big surprise waiting for them the morning of April 18, when they entered Ruben Rodriguez’s science class and discovered the classroom has been taken over and transformed into a Lockheed Martin Skunk Works® “top secret” laboratory.

Greeted by five of Lockheed Martin’s top Skunk Works engineers including “Chief Skunk,” Jeff Babione, vice president and general manager of the company’s Aeronautics, Skunk Works, students were heard questioning one another, wondering if they were in the right classroom.

Claudia Lopez, Skunk Works Community Relations/engineer greeted students and kicked off the takeover.

She explained the important role of engineering and how today’s engineers are thinking not just outside the box, but way beyond the box. She told students that Lockheed Martin designs have saved lives. “Magic does happen in our designs,” she said.

The workshop, called Generation Beyond is an introduction to young students about the importance of education in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, a branch of learning that today is more commonly referred to as STEM.

Lopez introduced the company’s ‘Chief Skunk’ Babione who then addressed the students.

“Good morning everybody, obviously you noticed that this is not your normal classroom. What we’ve done here today is turn your classroom into a top-secret Skunk Works design lab,” he said, adding: “For those who don’t know, the Skunk Works is a top-secret facility not far down the road from here and delivers some of the most innovative technology in aviation history.

Diane Betzler

“We invented the first U.S. jet fighter, we invented the stealth fighter, and many other aviation firsts! And today you are going to have an opportunity to invent your own airplanes,” he told the group of enthusiastic students.

Babione informed the young engineering potentials that they have been tasked with designing an aircraft suited to support humanitarian crisis.

Students were given three humanitarian aid/disaster relief scenarios to choose from and the assignment was to design an innovative aircraft suited to serve on a particular scenario.

Armed with handouts informing students what should be the goals of handling a particular crisis and asking for a summary of their solution, what their designed aircraft must do, could do, or should do.

Students were also given wire, wire cutters, clay, aluminum foil and assorted craft materials to build their design with.

They were told to work in groups and instructed to start off with creating a 2-D drawing of their design and then turn that design into a 3-D model.

“We have several Lockheed Martin engineers here who are going to help you out,” Babione said.

He told the students not to worry too much about their design being perfect, “At Skunk Works we believe in failing up, in learning from mistakes and collaboration. That’s where our best ideas have come from,” Babione said, he assured students that the best way to learn is by doing. “We’re going to teach you how to break out of the box,” he said.

Babione said later that he was especially excited about bringing the engineering workshop to Palmdale High School because of the huge aerospace presence here in the Antelope Valley, he said Lockheed Martin’s focus is to recruit and energize the school system’s interest in incorporating STEM into their curriculum.

“The way the aerospace industry is exploding we need more engineers,” he said, adding that the nation needs to grow more engineers, scientists and mathematicians.

Walking around the classroom Babione said he is happy to see the students engaged in the workshop, “It’s exciting to see students pulling their thought process together,” he said.

Babione said the aerospace industry is underserved by women, he said they make up less than one-third of the engineering workforce. His hope is that the workshops will send a message to women that some of the country’s best engineers are women, “My boss is a woman, so clearly this [women and technology] works,” he said.

The two-hour workshop only allowed students time enough to work on their 2-D design and therefore the assignment will be carried over into their regular science class.

Photograph by Diane Betzler

“The classroom takeover was a phenomenal success,” Rodriguez said. He said many of his students told him the experience motivated them to stick with engineering and work toward a possible career in the aerospace industry.

“I was very pleased with the outcome of the student’s designs. These students will move forward with the project and come up with scale 3-D printed prototypes,” he said.

Lockheed Martin engineers have five workshops scheduled this year for high schools throughout the country and Palmdale High is the only California high school on that schedule.

To further spark an interest in a career in technology, Lopez told students attending the workshop “When you come to me looking for a job after graduation and say, ‘Hey Ms. Lopez, remember me? I was at the education classroom takeover …’ you got the job!” she said.

The company also has an intern program for high school students that gives them a peek of what the aerospace industry is all about and the takeover workshop gives them a taste for what a career in engineering technology will be like.