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Russ College aviation students take first place in SkyHack competition challenge

Elisabeth Weems and Colleen Carow | Oct 23, 2017
Aviation seniors Matthew Kershaw, Laurel Davis and Kristen Morris, Kayla Cook accept their award with representatives from Piedmont Airlines
(L to R):Aviation seniors Matthew Kershaw, Laurel Davis and Kristen Morris, Kayla Cook accept their award with representatives from Piedmont Airlines

Russ College aviation students take first place in SkyHack competition challenge

Elisabeth Weems and Colleen Carow | Oct 23, 2017
(L to R):Aviation seniors Matthew Kershaw, Laurel Davis and Kristen Morris, Kayla Cook accept their award with representatives from Piedmont Airlines
(L to R):Aviation seniors Matthew Kershaw, Laurel Davis and Kristen Morris, Kayla Cook accept their award with representatives from Piedmont Airlines

Ohio University student aviators won first place in one of the contests at the regional SkyHack competition, held Oct. 13-15 at Kent State University, beating out teams from Case Western, Miami University of Ohio, Michigan State, Ohio State University, MIT, and others. 

The hackathon – an interdisciplinary, 36-hour-long problem-solving competition in which more than 220 students created industry solutions – gives students the opportunity to present innovative ideas for the chance to win a $10,000 grand prize. 

Russ College students, joined by engineering, aeronautics, health, design and fashion students from around the country, tackled issues that real airlines -- including sponsors Piedmont Airlines, Expressjet and Skywest – face, such as perimeter security, natural disasters and improving air traveler experience. 

Seniors Laurel Davis, aviation flight major; Kayla Cook, aviation management major; and Kristen Morris and Matthew Kershaw, aviation flight majors with a minor in aviation management; represented OHIO.

"None of us are engineers, so we were nervous at first," Davis said. "But during the opening ceremony, [KSU] told us what the five challenges actually were, and we felt pretty confident as soon as they talked about the pilot shortage stream because we're mostly pilots ourselves."

The current airline industry pilot shortage – one of the five contest "streams" students could choose from -- is affecting commercial airlines who, according to Fortune, have been impacted by three changes: an increase in the required pilot retirement age, an increase in number of hours a pilot needs to take flight, and new crew regulations. Aerospace company Boeing estimates that 117,000 pilots will be needed over the next 20 years in just North America. 

The team, which took home $1,000 for their solution, decided to create a strategy for Piedmont Airlines – which was so impressed that the company invited them to Maryland to pitch their idea.

"This is a different kind of competition that we've never done before," said Deak Arch, associate professor of aviation. "It opens us up a little more to the industry and gets our name out there -- and students get a great experience." 

Working with the team on their solution, Kershaw shared how he had encouragement to pursue aviation by his father, a past military pilot – but some prospective students entering college might be discouraged by costs and availability of programs. 

The team decided to target high school seniors and created a brochure, contract, and sample interview questions for prospective pilots.

Cook, who interned last summer at the Pittsburgh International Airport, said compromise and teamwork were among the most important lessons she took from the experience. She views as valuable assets in whatever profession she pursues.

"Wherever I'm going to go, being able to listen and contribute my ideas rather than saying, ‘Hey, we should do it this way" -- or asking for feedback and talking through everything, will go a long way," she said.

Airline representatives, pilots and KSU aviation program faculty members served as judges. They offered students suggestions and asked thought-provoking questions to help inspire the process and refine their approach, also giving students the opportunity to network. 

Kent State's Skyhack leadership team said they were impressed with the Russ College team and coach. 

"In addition to their intellectual abilities, they were all a pleasure to work with," said Kent State's Executive Director of Entrepreneurship Initiatives Julie Messing. "They were respectful, kind, funny, and hard working. They represented Ohio University with class, and we hope they will return for future events."

Other activities included a tour of KSU's facilities and equipment, including an air traffic control simulator, 3D printers and drones.