Ability and enthusiasm
If you were looking for 15-year-old David Ferris last summer you wouldn't have found him at the beach or skate park.
Instead, the teenager was immersed in a demanding 10-week work placement at the Australia Research Council Centre for Complex Dynamic Systems and Control (CDSC) as part of the University of Newcastle Industry Scholarship Scheme (UNISS).
Ferris worked with a five-person team headed by world-renowned Laureate Professor Graham Goodwin to complete a virtual laboratory for controlled systems design that focused on wind turbines.
The long-term plan is to distribute the completed laboratory as a teaching tool to other universities throughout the world.
Given the complexity, cost and danger of working on an actual turbine, the team worked together to create a way for students to simulate changing weather conditions and wind patterns.
Even though Ferris raced through high school in half the time and found the first year of his combined electrical engineering and mathematics degree reasonably easy, the CDSC project was particularly challenging.
"It isn't just about pointing the turbine into the direction of the wind, it's about getting the average wind speed and working out the maximum power you can extract safely," says Ferris, who is now 16 and in second year.
"There are lots of interconnecting control systems and I hadn't actually studied control systems before so it was overwhelming at first."
During the placement Ferris wrote a significant amount of software and had to learn how to program at an expert level. There's no doubt that he relished the opportunity to extend himself and advance his knowledge.
When he describes the details of the simulated experiments, his enthusiasm is evident in his bright-eyed expression and animated gestures.
He is just as animated when discussing mathematics and, tongue-in-cheek, his A Beautiful Mind ability to see patterns and solutions as easily as seeing words on a page.
"Logic is a huge part of mathematics and I can grasp the concepts," says Ferris.
"It's not about sitting there and going through the multiplication table in your head. It's about problem-solving."
And while Ferris has ability far beyond his years, most of his friends are from school and are only a couple of years older. He isn't at all perturbed by studying and working alongside people who are his parents' age.
"I've never really wanted to hang out with people my own age," he says without a hint of awkwardness. "I didn't feel like a kid when I was young, but I don't think I missed out on very much to be honest."
Ferris is passionate about video games and science fiction but has little time for music, sport, or Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series which his 13-year-old sister Rachael - who is also being accelerated through high school - paid him to read because she was convinced he'd fall under the spell of the teenage vampire love story. He didn't, though he enjoyed Meyer's science fiction offering The Host.
When asked about life beyond his five-year degree, Ferris doesn't yet have any specific plans. "I'm good at what I'm doing, so I'm just going to get better at it."
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