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Computer science teams win FAA competition

By : Eric Coker

What started as an exercise in communication and problem solving ended with national acclaim for Binghamton University, the Computer Science Department and 43 of its students.

Two student teams led by Associate Professor William Ziegler have received first-place awards in the National Federal Aviation Administration Design Competition for Universities. One team captured the top prize in the airport operation and maintenance challenges category for a plan that uses geothermal heat to remove snow and ice from runway aprons. The second team won the airport environmental interactions challenge for offering ways to recycle de-icing fluids.

“If one of the entries had gotten in the top three, I would’ve been delighted,” Ziegler said. “We’re not an aviation-related university and this is our first time in (the competition). Having both teams come in first place was totally unpredictable — just unbelievable.”

Competition was stiff: Binghamton finished ahead of San Jose State University’s Department of Aviation and Technology in the environmental category and beat the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Civil Engineering in the operation/maintenance category. The winning proposals were selected by panels of FAA, industry and academic experts.

In honor of their performance, Ziegler and six students attended the American Association of Airport Executives meeting in Philadelphia on June 16, where they received their FAA awards and presented their  work in front of airline industry professionals. The students (20 on one team; 23 on the other) split the first-place cash awards of $2,500 per category.

Ziegler’s two-credit senior seminar course gave students a chance to learn about teamwork, problem solving, writing and communication while working with Chad Nixon, aviation director of McFarland-Johnson in Binghamton, and Carl Beardsley, commissioner of aviation at the Greater Binghamton Airport, to develop airline industry projects.

The semester was not without its “challenges and difficulties,” Ziegler said, as some students struggled to grasp how work that on the surface seems better suited to engineering students was in fact “real life” for computer scientists.

“I don’t think I was a very popular professor this semester,” Ziegler said with a laugh.

Ziegler compared his role at times to a coach, as he spent much time in the critical middle of the semester trying to get the students on the right path and to communicate. But the students were able to come together and polish rough drafts before submitting 70-page design documents to the FAA in mid-April.

Ziegler gives much of the credit for the turnaround to two students: Justin Flechsig and Nicole Hofmann.

“They stepped up at the end,” Ziegler said. “They decided on their own that they were going to take ownership. They tied everything together and made smooth-flowing, wonderful documents.  … Without them, we absolutely never could have finished in first place.”

Flechsig was not sure how the proposal would fare on the national level. Nixon and Beardsley’s praise of the plan wasn’t enough to make Flechsig believe it could win the top prize.

“I’m pessimistic,” said Flechsig, who will be a second-semester senior this fall. “I was having insecurities about it.”

Flechsig, of New City, estimated that he spent 150-200 hours outside of class researching, writing and editing the airport aprons project.

“To put so many hours into something and be acknowledged for it is exciting,” said Flechsig, who led the airport apron presentation in Philadelphia. “Given the time constraints, I don’t think we could’ve done better.”

Hofmann, who will be a senior this fall, spent 60 hours during spring break editing and revising the environmental proposal.

“Because the design project fell outside the area of our team’s academic discipline, the reward of placing first is especially sweet,” she said. “There was initially much skepticism, but we pulled it off. It is immensely gratifying.”

The opportunity to work with local experts such as Nixon and Beardsley was integral for the project, Hofmann said.

“These partnerships are so crucial,” said Hofmann, of Binghamton. “Our industry partners were a huge part of this success: their enthusiasm and expertise helped us enormously.”

For Nixon, the feeling was mutual.

“The collaborative effort between Binghamton University, Broome County and McFarland-Johnson was amazing,” he said. “There was a real synergy as we brainstormed ideas and then developed the preliminary concepts into something practical, which was the basis for the final design submission.

“With these wins, Binghamton University has set the bar for other schools across the country.”

Ziegler is undecided about whether he will enter the competition in 2010. (“We could be like Seinfeld and quit while we’re at the top,” he said with a laugh.) If he pursues the challenge again, he wants his students to realize the significance of the undertaking.

“What do you write computer programs to do?” he said. “Solve problems. They may end up writing software for an aviation company. They could work for an engineering firm writing software. No matter where they work, this would be a tremendous benefit.”

But for now, Ziegler is ecstatic about the accolades: He even called each of the 43 students to deliver the news.

“It’s absolutely wonderful for the University,” he said. “It all feels good.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08