Engineering Campers Drum Up Bright Ideas

| August 1, 2011

“Can we get a drum roll from the drum shirt?” Bethany Brinkman asked, and Lydia Fleck promptly obliged, tapping out an electronic tattoo on her belly.

The fanfare heralded the moment all gathered in Heuer Auditorium were waiting for. Would the Rube Goldberg machine work? Brinkman, who’d overseen its construction by Fleck and 21 other high school girls attending Sweet Briar College’s annual Explore Engineering summer course, hedged her bets.

“If something doesn’t work, just encourage it to work,” she told the students.

And with that, a croquet mallet triggered a chain reaction of moving marbles, balls, whirring motors, popping balloons, cascading water and a wind-propelled sailboat — to name just a few of the “events” that the girls, divided into eight teams, had designed into the contraption. Rube Goldberg devices, named for the cartoonist famous for drawing them, employ a series of complicated actions to achieve a simple result.

In this case, a piñata at the terminal end exploded candy and confetti. And, albeit with some “encouragement,” it all worked. The thing ran the length of the auditorium, from the top seat row to the bottom, turned a corner, continued across the front of the room, and hung a left toward the waiting piñata.

In between were who knows how many feet of PVC pipe, gobs of pink and green duct tape, a 10-foot tower made of two-by-fours from which a bucket full of water hung precariously, myriad other sundries and string — lots of string.

Each team was responsible for a section of the machine. They had to include at least one electrical circuit, a gyroscope and five mechanical events. Brinkman pointed out the difficulty of the achievement to the parents who’d come to see the final demonstrations, which conclude the weeklong course.

“We really challenged them with an open-ended problem,” she said. The designs had to work on their own, but the true test was making them work with the teams on either side. That meant cooperating with each other and maintaining communication as components were tested and revised.

Earlier in the week, Hank Yochum, director of Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, emphasized the point. “We think these are important skills for engineers to have and we really want them to practice those skills,” he said on Wednesday.

The annual summer course receives funding from the National Science Foundation to help recruit and retain women in the engineering field. But they also are a thorough introduction to Sweet Briar and its engineering program — which is distinguished in all sorts of ways by being at a small liberal arts and all-women’s school.

The difference was evident to Fleck, a rising senior from Poquoson, and her teammate Casi Huvard of Chesterfield. Both have attended other engineering camps.

“This is the only camp where you don’t feel so lost,” Huvard said.

“The college kids actually come up and help you,” Fleck noted, and Huvard agreed, saying they’re helpful without looking down on you.

The pair sat across from each other over a table littered with wires, batteries, circuit boards and pieces of a deconstructed toy drum. They were working on the week’s other big project, to design and make “intelligent clothing.” Fleck and Huvard are the creators of the aforementioned drum shirt, inspired by the habit of drumming on your stomach.

It was Wednesday — the day when the design-test-improve work begins in earnest. Up to that point, they were learning mechanical and electrical engineering concepts, given project guidelines and told to plot their creations. On Tuesday, they shopped for supplies at the Goodwill Store and Home Depot.

Letting them dream up their own inventions within specific parameters is an important aspect of the camp, Yochum says. “We teach them some basic things and then say ‘What can you do with that that’s cool?’ ”

Some of this year’s better-living innovations were slippers with lights and proximity sensors in the toes to navigate in the dark; a jacket fitted with skin temperature and conductivity sensors to display the wearer’s mood, pain or discomfort; a rummageless purse wired to light up inside when opened (the additional rotating shelves proved too ambitious for two days’ work); pants that inflate in the seat (a technically complicated achievement, much to the delight of project faculty advisor Scott Pierce); a prom dress with a motorized hemline; and a hat that lights in the dark and turns off in light using photo resistors and a microcontroller.

Category: Engineering Science, Uncategorized