If it's bigger than a barn, how does it fly?

How does something bigger and heavier than a barn fly? Curious children and adults who visit the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum can learn the answer to that question thanks to an interactive exhibit developed with the help of Mississippi State University.

"How Things Fly" has been launched recently at the Washington, D.C. museum, which chronicles the history of flight.

Visitors to a new interactive gallery can touch a kiosk screen and see one of four airplanes, explained research engineer Michael Stokes of the university's National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center.

He and civil engineering professor David Huddleston developed computer software and simulations that allow viewers to experience how wings give airplanes lift. Visitors touch a screen to select a Boeing 757, a 1909-vintage Bleriot, a DC-3, or an F-104. All are represented in the museum.

"The interactive demonstrations will show visitors why aircraft look and work the way they do," Stokes said. Visitors will learn about a wing's angle of attack, mach, airspeed, and supersonic flight, among other phenomena.

Users can select different airspeeds and different angles of attack to see what the wing's response would be, Stokes said. Touching any highlighted term in the display creates an information window with definitions and guidance, he said.

Creating the display to Smithsonian specifications required developing hundreds of computer applications. "It was a challenge to represent very complex phenomena for an age group from the third grade up," Stokes noted.

"How Things Fly" is a permanent exhibition located on the first floor of the Air and Space Museum, one of 16 museums and galleries that make up the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition celebrates the museum's 20th anniversary and is in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution's 150th anniversary.