Mark Kelm's desire to build faster, more efficient machines began when he played with a toy gun as a child. That early flirtation with a toy grew into a science project that tests how airplane surface texture affects speed.
The Chesapeake Science Point freshman presented his science project at an aerospace engineering conference earlier this month.
The opportunity propelled him closer to his goal of becoming a mechanical or aerospace engineer. As an engineer, he hopes to solve problems and make better machines, he said.
The goal of the project was to find the wing texture that would optimize air lift. The project consists of a computer fan that sits on the end of a foam tunnel, which is covered with two pieces of glass taped together. A small scale sits in the middle of the tunnel.
At his Glen Burnie home, Mark places a smooth model airplane wing, mounted on a stick, on the scale and turns on the fan.
The weight of the airplanes starts to fall as the wind picks it up.
He also has a wing covered in wrinkled aluminum foil, one covered with sand paper and one with bumps on the wing.
He said the wrinkled wing has the maximum air lift because the foil helps stabilize the wing from the changes in the wind direction, similar to how dents in golf balls help them fly farther.
In his past science fair projects, he has tested textures for submarines and rockets for optimal speed.
After Mark presented his project at the county schools science fair in March, he was invited by representatives from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics to speak at its November conference. His project also won the professional group's award for outstanding middle school project at the March fair.
Mark said he was able to practice presenting complex science ideas to professionals, a valuable experience for his career goals.
His dad, an aerospace engineer, said speaking with unfamiliar audiences will help Mark practice pitching his ideas for funding, a key skill in the science world.
"He was extremely poised when presenting, much more poised than I was for the first 10 years of my career," Bernie Kelm said.
Mark lives with his mom, Liz, brother Ben and dad.
Mark's love for the mechanics of the physical world began when he realized he could reassemble his Nerf gun, which shoots foams darts, and make the darts go faster.
"I wouldn't be satisfied with their performance; so I'd just take them apart, upgrade parts, remove unnecessary stuff," Mark said.
"So he could shoot his brother harder," Bernie Kelm joked.
Two years ago, Mark talked with some students at a University of Maryland open house event in College Park about how they used a wind tunnel to test car speed.
He realized they used the same mechanical technique he used to make his Nerf gun darts go faster — by increasing the air pressure.
His mom said she received a call from Mark that day announcing that he wanted to be a mechanical engineer.
"He's the kid who likes to take things apart," Liz Kelm said.
He hopes he eventually can test his wings on a bigger scale and take them out of the wind tunnel and into the open air.
And one day, he hopes to see wrinkled wings on planes.
"If I could get a more efficient lift, then that would save money. And then the U.S. can pay all of its debt, hopefully sooner, because they're not spending as much money on military air craft gasoline" Mark said.