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Best OSS CFD Package For High School Physics? 105

RobHart writes "I am teaching a 'physics of flight' unit to grade 11 Physics students. Part of the unit will have the students running tests on several aerofoils in a wind tunnel. I also want to expose them to a Computational Fluid Dynamics package which will allow them to contrast experimental results with those produced by the CFD package. There are a number of open source CFDs available (Windows- or Linux-based are both fine), but I don't have much time to evaluate which are the simplest to use in terms of setting up the mesh, initial conditions, etc. — a very important issue as students do not have much time in this unit." Can anyone offer insight about ease of use for programs in this niche?
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Best OSS CFD Package For High School Physics?

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  • Too Complicated (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @02:54PM (#32668504) Journal
    I agree that CFD would be something nice to teach a high school student. However, unless this is an AP course, CFD is just too complex for high school students. Most people don't learn CFD until grad school.
    • Don't confuse 'Don't learn' with 'Can't learn'. They might be able to master it at all, but just some general exposure and some real high level usage can go a very long way in there careers. Two kids applying for a job, one has at least used CFD a few times and the other goes "No, but I can figure it out!" its pretty straightforward who is getting the job.
      • Re:Too Complicated (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Chris Mattern ( 191822 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @05:46PM (#32671302)

        Two kids applying for a job, one has at least used CFD a few times and the other goes "No, but I can figure it out!" its pretty straightforward who is getting the job.

        Yep. Neither of them. No place that uses CFD as part of the job is going to accept anyone who isn't a certified engineer with extensive training in its use.

    • Learning vs Exposure (Score:5, Informative)

      by pavon ( 30274 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @03:14PM (#32668790)

      Just because they don't have the mathematical background to fully understand the models, doesn't mean that it is worthless to expose them to the concepts. Playing around with flow simulations and seeing how changes in geometry affect flow is fun, and can give them a feel for the basic concepts of aerodynamics. It will make the class more interesting, and encourage them to pursue physics or engineering as a career.

      • by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @04:01PM (#32669794) Journal

        Playing around with flow simulations and seeing how changes in geometry affect flow is fun

        Agreed, but I'm afraid that playing with CFD will just leave the students frustrated and convinced that physics doesn't work because they can't get CFD to work. I remember kids in high school, (even some in college) deciding that physics doesn't work because they couldn't get newton's laws of motion to match the results they observed experimentally. In reality, they didn't do their math correctly.

        If the author want's to quickly demonstrate the principles of fluid mechanics to his/her students here is my plan:
        1) Make sure they have a firm grasp on Newton's laws of motion.
        2) Have them drop a paperclip and a coffee filter from the same height and measure how long it takes them to hit the floor.
        3) Explain to them that this is the effect of aerodynamic drag.
        I performed the same experiment in college physics. It's quick and effective.

        • by spazdor ( 902907 )

          A college professor earned money by dropping a paperclip and a coffee filter? What kind of class was this, exactly?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by RJFerret ( 1279530 )

          I believe I saw that demonstration in elementary or middle school back in the 1970s or 1980s. In high school, our physics teacher showed a feather falling in a vacuum (much cooler). Get with the '80s already! ;-)

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by squizzar ( 1031726 )
          We did this in physics with a feather and a penny. Teacher had a big tall glass tube and a vacuum pump. I can't actually remember how they 'dropped' the items (I've dreamt up a system with a rod through a bung in the end of the tube, with the feather/penny stuck on the end by a small piece of blu-tack or similar, when you pull the rod up it knocks the item free from the end of the rod), but basically what you saw was the feather drop at the same speed as the penny (give everyone a stopwatch). Shows the a
        • by x0 ( 32926 )
          I've seen this same experiment in 'Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead'... Feather and a bowling/bocce ball if I recall correctly. m
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Unless they're learning something about *how* the model generates the results -- which takes a lot of explaining even if you minimize the formula use -- all they'll get out of it is:

        "Magic computer gives magic results that we compare to some experiment."

        The most important thing to impart on the students is not any fact itself, but that nature is not magic, that we use models to understand and predict nature, and that you can learn how the models actually work if you try.

        Since they won't have the time to lea

        • Even assuming you're correct that exposing a high school physics class to CFD software will fail at teaching them anything about fluid mechanics, you are still ignoring the more important benefit such exposure will have: sparking interest. I would bet that more than a few students would see the computer model and think, "wow! I wonder how other shapes would interact with airflow?". That right there is where the river of knowledge springs from.
          • sparking interest. I would bet that more than a few students would see the computer model and think, "wow! I wonder how other shapes would interact with airflow?".

            Right and he'll get interested in learning how to make shapes in the program and learning the magic number it spits out. Science is about learning how the "magic" works, not playing with its fruits.

            • by Cwix ( 1671282 )

              Your right that it may not "teach" them a lot, but if it makes it fun they can realize that science isn't always boring. It just might be the thing that makes these students want to investigate a future in science or computers. Would any of us have ever been interested in computers if we hadnt seen what amazing magical things could be done with them? A few of us maybe, but honestly not very many I think.

        • by rew ( 6140 )

          CFD is simple. for every timestep and every volume element, you calculate pressure and air (fluid) movement. If there is a pressure difference speed will increase (or decrease). When moving air can't go further, e.g. because it hits something solid, pressure increases.

          In one paragraph I've explained the basics of CFD. This means you can teach it to high school students in an hour.

          If they've played with say excel before, you can let them do a one-dimensional CFD in excel. (just pressure and speed.).

    • by vbraga ( 228124 )

      Some of the visualization stuff (membranes, vortex streets, convection cells can be beautiful) may, at least, motivate and interest a class, I think. Could maybe be used as an accessory material. Turbulence and a lot of interesting phenomena can be shown in a qualitative way. Non linear phenomena and their application to physics - a double pendulum goes a long way to show way the weather forecast isn't always right. Thermodynamics could be a lot less boring if show as simulations instead of ugly hand drawn

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by blair1q ( 305137 )

      That's what they used to say about computers.

      But when I was learning to write Fortran in school in 9th grade, grad students were learning to write Fortran at the university across town, and making more mistakes and understanding it less than I was.

      I would expect the CFD program that would suit this class is something that takes a simple grid input for the surface, simple initial conditions, then runs the flow and plots streamlines or vectors. No need to get into the theory behind the sim computations, just

      • by jbengt ( 874751 )

        I would expect the CFD program that would suit this class is something that takes a simple grid input for the surface, simple initial conditions, then runs the flow and plots streamlines or vectors.

        I don't believe there are "simple initial conditions" for CFD software.

        • by reason ( 39714 )

          Of course there are. Uniform initial density, zero (or uniform) initial currents, and a source at one grid point.

    • by Jurily ( 900488 )

      CFD is just too complex for high school students

      Oh come on. These students have already learned natural language processing, is that not complex?

      Perhaps it's the learning method that counts, not the subject.

      • Re:Too Complicated (Score:4, Informative)

        by TheKidWho ( 705796 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @03:28PM (#32669110)

        Sorry, but trying to understand the results of a CFD simulation require a solid understanding of fluid mechanics and an understanding of shear stress, which in turn requires a solid understanding of calculus and differential equations.

        • Re:Too Complicated (Score:5, Insightful)

          by spazdor ( 902907 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @04:41PM (#32670422)

          Similarly, no one has ever gotten good at baseball without first earning a PhD in ballistics.

        • Well, once you teach them calculus and differential and partial differential equations.

          You can break them in with the Navier-Stokes [] equation.

          Then break them the news that air foils don't lift because the air on top is "moving faster" but because it has to make minute angular accelerations. Since the air temperature doesn't change, the energy needed for drops out of the pressure. Tada, lift.

          Or something like that.

          • No, you start with the Bernoulli principle, in a simplified form. That is, the kinetic energy plus pressure is a constant. You show them the really cool demonstrations of blowing over a piece of paper to make it go up, or the ball in the vacuum cleaner exhaust that stays in the exhaust despite perturbation. Then, you discuss why a curve ball curves. Then, you show them a simple pitot tube and put it in different velocities of air.

            Then, you apply this to airfoils.

            Then, you go to the NASA page and get

        • I would argue that the only thing really required to get a fundamental grasp is to be able to read polar graphs and understand the concept of coefficient. Especially if you use a "specific CFD" tool, like XFLR5 - you don't need to understand ALL of what the variables are to understand Cl/Cd with t=alpha on a graph, same is true with GCm/Cd with t=Re.

          Explaining the Reynolds number might be the most complex part of the class, actually. I mean, they're already doing wind-tunnel simulations to begin with - h
    • CFD is just too complex for high school students. Most people don't learn CFD until grad school.

      I don't know where you come from, but we have a stage in between.

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I agree. Not only is CFD complicated, running experiments properly and analyzing experimental results are hard. What I fear is, you will end up asking them to contrast improperly measured results from a poorly run set of experiments against some computer output none of them has any understanding of. But the lesson learned is still going to be valuable, experimental and computational physics are hard.

    • by LostMyBeaver ( 1226054 ) on Thursday June 24, 2010 @03:53AM (#32674828)
      Yes, I know this is Slashdot, but you got the first post and the first thing I read when I clicked on the to read comments is your somewhat counterproductive answer.

      I would imagine that the instructor has already decided that the topic would match the students. If it were a regular level course, then it's likely he'd show a video on the topic and it would be good enough. Instead he's chosen to broach the math involved by attempting to simulate a fluid dynamics scenario.

      In short, instead of assisting the teacher in his attempt to try and broaden the minds of ambitious youngsters, it almost appears that you're simply recommending that he stops doing his job, packs up and maybe instead teaches ABCs and 123s.

      Let's face it, if he's a teacher who is "qualified" to teach a topic like computational fluid dynamics, I'd imagine that he wasn't hired to teach just the average "who gives a shit" student. There are enough useless teachers who wouldn't bother out there already. This guy at least makes the effort of trying to figure out how he can best accomplish the task of teaching a complex subject.

      Please don't EVER!!!! stop an ambitious teacher from attempting to educate ambitious students in the future. Especially not under the premise of suggesting that it shouldn't be done.
    • by mikael ( 484 )

      Back in the 1990's, TV programming for schools (UK) used to have programs for A-level physics that covered this topic. The depth of explanation would be simply to have a cross-section of a various shapes (brick, sphere, aerofoil, triangle, flat panel) all in a wind-tunnel or wave-tank. Then smoke or dye would be added to show how much turbulence there was. The goal wasn't to explain fundamentals like curl, divergence, gradient fields, Eigen-vectors or Navier-Stokes equations, just to give an insight into wh

  • openFOAM (Score:5, Informative)

    by Amigan ( 25469 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @02:55PM (#32668520) Homepage
    Check out openFOAM []. You might find that it meets your needs.
    • Check out openFOAM []. You might find that it meets your needs

      Good answer. The price is certainly right.

      The most widely used CFD software is probably StarCD. [] Unfortunately, it's probably cost prohibitive for a high school.

      • Not really, CD-Adapco was handing out free licenses to students. I had a continuous 4 year license throughout college for StarCD. If you ask them nicely I'm sure they would provide you with a free copy for educational use.

    • Re:openFOAM (Score:4, Informative)

      by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @03:22PM (#32668990) Journal

      Took some digging but I found a page where they actually show some pictures:


      You'd think they'd have some color somewhere on the home page, but OSS types rarely have a marketing clue...

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      openFOAM is very powerfull, i would say that it's too powerfull for the task

      IMHO the minimum requirements to consider even using it are:

      -C\C++ knowledge, to be able to write the 'problem statements' you need to be confortable with it.
      -Obviously knowledge about fluid mechanics is required: Reynolds/Froude/Mach numbers, Bernoulli equation, steady/unsteady flow. This knowledge is required to be able to pose the problem. You will need a lot of knowledge about PDEs and boundary conditions, and the basics about t

    • openFOAM is far too advanced for a basic intro to CFD. If you're hell-bent on introducing CFD in software form, you might be best off writing a simple fluid simulator and wrapping it with OpenGL or something. If you do incompressible flow with a simple structured mesh and a few editable parameters, you could probably be done in a few hours. And if you can't.. well, perhaps you aren't the right person to introduce such an advanced topic to highschoolers :)
    • Rather that a full up Navier-Stokes solver (I was going to say openFOAM too), since it's a short section of a course, maybe just have them play with the NACA airfoil potential flow solver []; that's pretty neat. You can explain the simplifications to the governing equations between "real" CFD and potential flow, and show them that the simple models can still be useful in certain situations.
    • While OpenFOAM is certainly really powerful, it is short of a GUI* (except for results-visualisation), and might therefore be less than ideal. That said, it is simple enough to use with a walkthrough, and the fact that the interface is basically composed of text files should make it easier for students to get back on track if they go wrong (this is a big problem, for example, with teaching CFX). If the main focus of the work is going to be running an essentially pre-built model (which the students then rebu

    • by felesii ( 673184 )
      I have (tried) to work with OpenFOAM in the past, and I would very much not recommend it for someone who doesn't already have an intimate knowledge of CFD. It has a very steep learning curve and no GUI whatsoever anymore. It may be powerful and free, but it is not appropriate for OP's needs. As far as I can tell it was formerly a commercial code that was open-sourced, but they keep it as non-intuitive as possible to try to sell people on the $2000 dollar training courses they put on.
  • Code_Saturne (Score:4, Informative)

    by thatcadguy ( 1346069 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @03:01PM (#32668588)
    I like Code_Saturne. It has a GUI that greatly simplifies the whole process. You can use SALOME to make the initial model and then mesh it, and also use it to visualize the results. All of these programs come precompiled on a live Linux distro called CAElinux. [] [] [] In any case, check out CAElinux. It's going to be the least hassle out of any of your choices because everything comes precompiled.
    • Code_Saturne is also now packaged in Debian unstable (as well as under Gentoo Linux and FreeBSD), so it should be even easier to install soon. I have also heard that a new version of CAELinux is under preparation, and that the SALOME platform is also being packaged under Debian (disclaimer: I am a Code_Saturne developer). Please use the new 2.0-rc versions found on [] instead of the old 1.4 version from the current CAELinux, as we've really improved the GUI and scripts, beyond the add
  • by Anonymous Coward

    As an aerospace engineering PhD, I can tell you that CFD with mesh generation, turbulence model selection, numerical method selection, etc. is definitely above the level of your typical 11th grade student, even a gifted one. At best, you could have them run OpenFOAM tutorial cases, though it is highly doubtful that they would understand what is actually going on and would be able to say little more than "I've run a CFD code before, but I don't know what the results mean" at the end of the experience. Ther

    • On that note, JavaFoil is pretty nice. It gives you some decent numerical results for airfoil testing. I used it in one of my college fluids classes to help with some airfoil calculations. []

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Davorama ( 11731 )

      This is the advice you want to follow. Use XFOIL or some other panel method based program to analyze airfoils along side of your wind tunnel stuff.

      You can talk about all the things it doesn't do well (boundary layer separation, transonic flow...) and show them some Color Fancy Drawings made by a more advanced simulation as an aside.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      This is the best advice you'll find here. I love CFD and I think any high school student could understand a good share of the basic physical concepts, but when you put it all together there's simply too much going on to yield much insight for all of the setup involved. If all you want is geometry in and pretty pictures out, then people have already listed a number of excellent packages, but spare the kids the details. A panel method is a good alternative, but be careful nonetheless.
    • Most CFD software is too complex to learn in a reasonable timeframe in a classroom environment, but that doesn't mean the teacher can't learn it, set it up and run it to demonstrate the results to the kids. They won't need to understand the Navier-Stokes equations, they just need to see what can be done computationally, using equations based on the physics that they are learning in school.

  • by Slipped_Disk ( 532132 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @03:10PM (#32668726) Homepage Journal

    I like the idea of exposing your students to CFD packages, particularly the variation between experimental results & results off of a theoretical model. My concern would be that mastering a CFD package (or even become a basic user of one) is pretty time consuming. As others have pointed out you usually don't touch CFD packages until late undergrad or grad school.

    Consider building the models yourself and running them as a demonstration rather than asking your students: They get the benefits of seeing what the software can do & being able to reference the theoretical data generated, but won't have to deal with the frustration/learning curve of CFD software.
    If there's an interest you can offer an extra credit project where students design (or modify) a mesh & report the results.

  • As a trainee physics teacher for A-level students (age 16-19, i believe about equivilant to grades 11-12) i will be watching this thread with interest.

    Some have suggested that we will not be able to teach this level of physics to this level of students. However if something comes up which can be used for simple attractive demonstrations then that would be great.

    E.g in my course my students need to know the difference between laminar and turbulent flow, and fast move fluids will break into turbulent flow
  • []

    I haven't used it, but I've used his related SLFFEA [] for a project before, and was surprised how easy it was to use.

  • JavaFoil (Score:3, Informative)

    by louks ( 1075763 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @03:38PM (#32669342)

    Basically, this is similar to XFoil, which is the standard 2-D CFD software for beginning Aeronautical Engineers (after they made us write our FORTRAN77).

    Since it is not 3-D, it runs MUCH faster and lets them discover the basics of pressure over an airfoil, which is the important part of wing design. The details of taper, sweep, tip shape, twist, and such are a bit too much for a high-school project. Surface area and aspect ratio are the simplest and most important criteria for airplane design. These values can be calculated on paper after coefficients of lift and drag are generated.

    Javafoil can be run stand-alone or in an applet. It's free, and fairly straightforward to use.

    Best of luck. I'd be interested to hear how quickly they catch on to the concepts. []

  • by multimediavt ( 965608 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @03:43PM (#32669422)

    I've taught computational fluid dynamics and molecular dynamics workshops to university faculty members and can say this: You need to setup the examples for them to play with BEFORE class. There's really no such thing as an easy to use CFD or MD package, especially when looking at what it takes to setup initial conditions. I would strongly recommend that you do a good deal of the leg work, especially for participants that do not have the mathematical background or a background in fluid dynamics, period. It will only help you in the end.

    This link [] will take you to lists of free and free-to-academics CFD codes, but the free ones are really, really bare bones in a lot of cases when it comes to UI. I would not turn high school students loose on these codes without pre-determined examples.

  • by jd ( 1658 )

    NASA has several Open Source CFD packages. Unlike the ones developed by the regular OSS community (which may technically be superior), NASA Langley's CFDs are used by engineers there in real aircraft design. No matter what problems there may be (and there are sure to be some), they have to be "good enough" for real-world commercial aviation. That is certainly good enough for a physics lab.

    The problem with other CFD packages is that even if they produce good results, unless you analyze the code, you can't be

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  • The highest level science class available in my HS was AP Chemistry. It would have so cool to take physics in HS.
  • by riboch ( 1551783 )

    Are you looking for real CFD software for pressure distributions or are you looking for something that returns lift, drag, side and moments?

    On the CFD side: OpenFOAM. Learning this is quite a bit of work because you need to work with meshing, boundary conditions, etc. But I would be very surprised you really want flow visualisation.

    For loads: XFOIL or AVL (Athena Vortex Lattice, []). AVL allows 3D visualisation of loads, perturbations, etc. When it comes to a first

  • by vincentbetro ( 1840582 ) on Wednesday June 23, 2010 @04:19PM (#32670072)
    I will be getting my PhD in Computational Engineering in August, and as a former university, high school and middle school math teacher, there are things that can be applied to teaching young students about CFD without them having all the mathematics background they need. I am the STEM outreach coordinator at the SimCenter, and I have a website [] which includes an Euler solver on a NACA 0012 airfoil with changeable parameters for students to study the various solutions based on mach, angle of attack, etc. It also does grid adaptation. There is a graduate student tutorial and a high school student activity. I have used it with precalc, calc, and physics students at local high schools. Please feel free to contact me at for anything else I can help with. Vince P.S. Another good (and longer running) package can be obtained from NASA Lewis and can be run on any platform: []. Good luck!
  • The X-plane flight simulator has an aircraft designer module and it models the airfoils with simple CFD models AFAIK. It's also certified for use as a flight trainer if you have the expensive physical cockpit parts to build around the software.
    • by jd ( 1658 )

      Of course [], simulation is only one solution [].

    • by Shotgun ( 30919 )

      Unfortunately, no, X-plane does not do CFD. You have to generate the airfoil's characteristics in something like X-Foil to create an airfoil file for the program. It is essentially a flat text file of lift coefficients vs angle of attack. Xplane breaks the lifting surfaces into narrow panels, and then adds up all the various lifts in real time.

      CFD in real time would be way to computationally heavy.

  • Perhaps a good question is- will running CFD be a learning experience for your students? Will they just be blinding clicking options without getting much out of it? Perhaps they could interact with a CFD solution that you ran instead. They could still do a comparison to experimental results. I have found that simpler 2-D or other approximate codes offer better learning experiences that full-up CFD because changing options, creating geometry and viewing results is much simpler. Check out XFOIL and maybe
  • Airfoils (Score:2, Interesting)

    by lbarbato ( 410651 )

    If you're looking for an airfoil simulator, you might try NASA's FoilSim II []. "Elementary," student, and undergraduate versions are available, and the non-applet download gives an even more complete version that allows file output. While it's not a full CFD package, it may be good enough for an introduction to airfoil analysis. And while it's not open source, it is free and in the public domain (since it was government produced).

    Also, if you're generally looking for open source physics simulations, you sho

  • Well a CFD-System for just verifing wind tunnel tests might be a bit too much, but verifying lift and drag for such airfoils is possible.

    This is based on my experience in the wind industry, so this means I'm refering to blades which consists of many airfoils attached to a rotor but the basic principles remain the same.

    When dealing with windturbine aerodynamic simulations Aerodyn[3] implements the BEM[1] but BEM is based on MT[2] and can caculate Lift/Drag for Airfoils due to a certain wind either constant o

  • Gerris Flow Solver (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I recommend gerris flow solver for something that is fairly easy to use....

    30 minutes after building it I had this:

    and I think I spent more time figuring out how to build models in blender. It's not as powerful as openfoam, which is what I normally use now.... but its easier to get started with.

  • For mesh generation (surface+volume meshing, boundary layer creation, etc):
    enGrid: []
    netgen (used as a library in enGrid): []

    For the CFD simulations: []

    Debian/Ubuntu packages: []

  • X-Foil - hands down. Designed by MIT, you can download .dat files for airfoils to load them, create NACA airfoils, and output all sorts of polar graphs. If you're even more ambitious, look up XFLR5 on sourceforge - it does CFD over the entire surface of the aircraft in 3-D, as you can create a wing plan, tail surfaces and even a fuselage using curves. XFLR5 is great because of the visualizations you can get from it - including animated lift/drag/pressure distributions, static airflow trails, and of course
  • With wooden models, a big water tank with flowing water and food dye squirted down a straw they will get a better grasp of fluid flow than you'll get from computational fluid dynamics. It's like having a dirt cheap wind tunnel. Then you have the whiteboard next to it to describe why the fluid flows that way. Much more memorable than pretty pictures on a screen produced by a mathematical black box of equations that they will not be able to understand. I'm not being condescending since that is what has wo
  • Elmer from [] ... free, windows executable available, MPI capable. Geometric model has to be made separately I believe.
  • The tutor offeering from Zeus Numerix is a good option [] [] This is meant to be an aid for the instructor in teaching fluid dynamics.
  • You can do this easily with physical models held in place by a stand, colored smoke from smoke bombs or even dry ice, and a fan. What you are looking for is turbulence. Which is easy to spot as the smoke passes the variaous parts of the model. It shows up as swirls.

  • See Caedium, which also implements a version of OpenFOAM. In the simple screencast tutorial, you can see how quickly a Wing model can be put together, with simple visualizations of flow and turbulence. This can be done in 5 minutes. [] Not sure of the licensing costs for education, but this is MUCH simpler and easy to use and it is fully cross platform, including Mac. I would simply ask for educational terms and see what you find out. I think it's effectively a one

Logic is a pretty flower that smells bad.