University of Vermont

College of
Engineering and Mathematical Sciences

ECHO engineering: Students create educational exhibits

Release Date: 11-28-2007

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Phone: 802/656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203


First-year student Hannah Wingate demonstrates a stormwater-themed board game on Nov. 15 at the ECHO science center in Burlington. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

Below the main exhibit hall of the ECHO Science Center in downtown Burlington, halfway up the stairs on the mezzanine landing, under the baleful eyes of the long-nosed gar in a nearby fish tank, Kate McKegney tests the torque and shear strength of a wind turbine. She's five years old. Her test consists of running.

She holds up a strangely elegant device made from three blades of stiff foam-board attached to a piece of coat hanger mounted on a length of PVC pipe. Then she dashes back and forth while her grandmother and several other visitors watch.

"When you run, it spins around," she says a few moments later, "it shows you how strong the wind is."

Exactly. Erin Krug, William Lalande, Laura Galiher, Mike Venman and Max Scholl have succeeded.

They're first-year UVM students in "Introduction to Civil and Environmental Engineering" and they built these pinwheel-like turbines as a class project. They could also be onto something useful for the science center.

"We've been working with ECHO to develop ideas for new exhibits," explains Nancy Hayden, associate professor in the School of Engineering, and one of the instructors in the course. She brought the students here in October to see the science center. Then, working in small teams, Hayden gave them five weeks to develop a prototype exhibit that would be fun and educational for the public.

"We asked them to think like a guest as they come through a museum," says Tracy Truzansky, ECHO's education manager, "to stimulate interest in both engineering and environmental issues — to help guests see direct application of engineering to their real world."

Now the students are facing the very real test of an afternoon's worth of small children playing with their products.

"Only one set of blades broke," says Krug.

"Kids like this," says Scholl, "it's really interactive. They put the parts together and get to say, 'I made this!'" And exposure to the wind-capturing form of a turbine, he thinks, is a great first step toward the larger issues of renewable energy that underlie this exhibit.

"I know a lot about wind turbines," says Venman, "so the design wasn't too hard. The big problem was how to do something on a small scale for cheap."

Creating connections

Welcome to engineering. Or, in other words, "our job is to solve problems, not only to understand them," says Domenico Grasso, dean of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (CEMS), who stopped by to see the exhibits. "If we take a narrow myopic approach to engineering, we'll not solve whole problems," he says.

Hayden describes how her students tackle whole problems. "In this course, and in our programs, we're exploring the connections between engineering and the environment, and many other connections too, about policy and society. We're considering real problems at several scales," says Hayden.

So, at one scale these students are exploring the intersection of design, materials and cost. At another, they're getting a sense that working with clients — and communicating effectively with various audiences — underlies any successful application of engineering design. And at another, they're considering not just how to design something, but what designs are important.

Just up the stairs from the wind turbine, another group of first-year students have built an exhibit that demonstrates this point.

Behind a classically shaped balsa-wood model of a suspension bridge, matchbox cars included, neon-colored construction paper declares, "Bridge Versus Ferry." Information panels along each side describe the benefits and downsides of the ferries that cross Lake Champlian, comparing them against a hypothetical new bridge to New York State. Clearly, if getting across the lake quickly is the goal, a bridge wins. But what about larger costs?

"Sure, we can make a shorter, easier commute," says Hayden, "but what about suburban sprawl? We don't want students to just make bridges, we want them to make connections. Connections: that's what this is all about."

And a bit of fun. Nearby, five dudes in hats and ski goggles man a snow-making exhibit. And on the other side, students have constructed a huge scale that weighs personal carbon emissions. That car ride? Thirty-six pounds — versus the bus trip at six. Back on the ground floor, student Hannah Wingate demonstrates a board game that seems like the marriage of Chutes and Ladders and a stormwater management manual.

But despite the slightly bubbly atmosphere, talking with Hayden, Grasso and other faculty on hand reveals an urgent undercurrent. "We're serious about systems," says Hayden, since a quickly warming climate system is not the only seemingly intractable problem that may require a new era of enlightened engineers.

As for five-year-old Kate McKegney, what does she know of such matters? Speaking more wisely than she realizes, she reflects on what a wind turbine might be good for. "I could use it for a hot day," she says.