PULLMAN, Wash. — How many elephants can you fit into the cargo hold of a Boeing 747? The answer is no joke, and it’s one that a group of Washington State University students have been working with the Boeing Company to solve.

As part of the Boeing Scholars Program, a group of undergraduates from various disciplines, including engineering, the sciences and business, were asked to develop a computational tool that will help determine the physical needs of animals being transported as live cargo in aircraft. The Boeing program provides several of the students with two-year scholarships and an internship at the company between their junior and senior years. The students then collaborate with Boeing scientists and engineers to complete a project during their senior year.

The students will present their project’s preliminary design review to Boeing engineers on WSU’s Pullman campus on Dec. 6.

This is the second year of a two-year project. Last year, students assessed and compiled data on temperature, humidity and other conditions that might stress animals. They studied the variety of conditions that animals need for air transport, including predicting how much heat, water and carbon dioxide different animal species produce and how much oxygen they consume.

When data was lacking, the students extrapolated information from other animals. They developed a database that will enable airline workers to quickly find information. Last year, the students reported on their animal database to the International Air Transport Association, an industry trade association.

This year, students are bringing together the database on animals with relevant information on specific aircraft, so that the computational tool will be complete. The computer program will determine whether the aircraft must provide or remove appropriate amounts of heat, oxygen, water and carbon dioxide for the animals. The airline industry has expressed interest in the computer program.

The project is giving students experience in areas that they will need in the business world, said Marvin Pitts, who serves as the students’ adviser on the project. Keeping to a contract with Boeing required time management skills. Students also had to learn to communicate effectively.

“The Boeing project comes the closest thing I’ve seen in education to a truly comprehensive design project,’’ Pitts said. “It covers all the bases. There is the engineering part, but there are all the other parts of what it takes to be a truly professional engineer.”

The live-animal transport project is being conducted as part of a yearlong senior-projects course taught in the department of biological systems engineering. Denny Davis, professor in the department and director of the bioengineering program, is teaching the course and facilitating interaction between the various disciplines involved in this project.

“The Boeing scholars are addressing a real problem faced by the airline industry, and they are learning firsthand the challenges of producing a product that meets both technical requirements and conditions that justify a business investment,” said Davis. “Student interaction with Boeing personnel has made this a wonderful learning experience.”