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An Energetic Introduction

By Joshua Brown Article published May 2, 2007

Engineering
Auston Maynard '10 and three of his classmates in an introductory engineering course demonstrate the "Ener-Gain Drain," a device they built to produce electricity using the hydropower of runoff from rain gutters and drainpipes. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

“Energy,” wrote William Blake, “is Eternal Delight.” But trying to catch enough of it to illuminate a flashlight — a flashlight powered by the back-and-forth shuffling of a winter boot — might make a first-year engineering student think otherwise.

“You’d have to sprint to make this work,” says Erik Guthrie ’10, holding up the would-be-lit boot. The attached magnetic motor and glued-on flashlight are ominously quiet and dark. “Actually, sprinting doesn’t work either,” he says with a rueful smile. “We tried that.”

Guthrie and his four teammates are freshmen in Electrical Engineering/Mechanical Engineering 001. Along with 20 other teams, they’re presenting their final designs to the School of Engineering advisory board members, who have stopped in for the course’s concluding open house.

The students’ assignment: Build a useful machine that will scavenge energy from the environment, store it for later use and sense how effectively the system is working, says Jeff Frolik, assistant professor of electrical engineering, who co-teaches the course with Jeff Marshall, director of the school.

The boot, unfortunately, needs no sensor to show how well it is working. “Things don’t always turn out the way you like them to,” Guthrie says, capturing a difficult truth about product design with nearly as much metaphysical pith as Blake’s ecstasies.

Happily, most of the projects — driven more by planning and less by sprinting — did turn out well. For another team of five students, design proof comes in the form of a cup of hot joe.

Desert coffee-to-go, bikeride in the lake
“This is the Solarbolic Coffee Brewmaster 2000,” Dan Harris ’10 says with a puff of salesman’s bravado, pointing to a shiny half-pipe of overlapping strips of aluminum resting on a frame of cut cardboard. “It’s completely collapsible and, when it’s sunny, only takes 10 minutes to get water to 150 degrees.”

Suspended down the middle of the solar-energy collecting device, a black piece of tubing, filled with water, absorbs the light reflected onto it. Once hot, the water can be released from a spigot at the bottom into a waiting mug; it would be good for coffee-loving hikers, explains Kate Bragg ’10, when they’re out in a place like her home in Utah, where there is a summer fire ban.

Not too surprisingly, visitor Paul Comey is paying close attention. He’s a member of the advisory board and vice president for environmental affairs at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. “We’re mostly in roasting and distribution, but if something really novel and innovative comes along, we’d entertain it,” he says; “maybe we could put this in our catalog to show what students come up with — when they put their minds to coffee.”

While solving the backwoods latté does not rank as one of the nation’s top engineering problems, the principles embedded in the Brewmaster 2000 are profoundly relevant — and exactly what Frolik and Marshall want their students to absorb as they move forward in their education: Define a clear need, design systems to effectively meet real needs and make the best use of the available energy, especially renewable and underutilized sources, whether the sun or the spinning of a revolving door.

“Energy,” says Jeff Marshall, “is the biggest problem our society faces and it’s inherently an engineering problem.” “Historically,” he says, “engineers have been looked at as people who tinker with this and that, but engineers are really at the front line of solving society’s problems. In this course, we bring that problem-solving need down to a level that’s manageable by first-year students who have almost no training as engineers.”

Two days earlier, seniors from across the School of Engineering had their own open house demonstrating their final projects. “Those seniors are the first ‘graduating class’ of this first-year design class; they took it the first time it was offered four years ago,” Frolik says.

From a 10-mile-per-hour amphibious bicycle to an agricultural waste digester, the senior projects were more ambitious, more quantitatively rigorous and more sophisticated than the first-year projects. But there was commonality between the two events: The projects were developed from clearly defined needs (okay, there is a useful discussion to be had about the need for an amphibious bicycle) and many were seeking ways to scavenge available energy and effectively use renewable power.

Useful and delightful
That first-year engineering students would be building machines and tools might not seem radical, but it is a departure from the past. “In engineering tradition, students are taught by taking math and physics courses for two years,” Marshall says. “Typically, they don’t see design work until their senior year. That is like music students not being able to play their instruments until their senior year.”

And, in another departure from tradition, the first-year design course engages its students with broad controversies of policy and big questions of ecological concern. “We had them reading articles from popular journals, like The Atlantic,” Marshall says, starting with the debate over the merits of ethanol, then considering the use of ocean waves as a source of energy and, finally, realities and results of global warming.

“Student retention in engineering is fairly low during the first year, so we’re trying to do a better job at connecting what they’re learning now with what they’ll be doing as professionals,” Marshall says. “We want our students to understand that their education is useful.” Sometimes even delightful.