It might have been a science fair.
There were tables and students and intricate projects and posters describing just what problem was being solved.
But these students were seniors in engineering, with specialties such as mechanics and energy. The projects addressed industrial problems. The teams were sponsored by powerhouse corporations including Lockheed Martin, U.S. Steel and General Motors.
This was clearly beyond making pinhole cameras and growing bread mold. This was the College of Engineering Design Showcase at the Bryce Jordan Center.
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At one end of the room, a team sponsored by Galaxy Brushes was showing off the large rig that it built to test the company’s newer, better product against the flat wire brushes more commonly used to clean pipes.
“They gave us these,” said Christine Hildenbrand, holding up one of the wheel-shaped, round-tipped “pencil” brushes. “They said, ‘Do something cool.’ ”
What they did was independently compare the two kinds of brushes, proving that Galaxy’s product worked 5 percent better than the standard. More than that, Kyle Hunt said, they also perform better at lower speeds, which might be more important to buyers.
That’s good news for Galaxy’s Ed Thompson. The company is small and doesn’t have a large staff to do that kind of testing.
“The fact that it’s independent really helps,” said Galaxy engineer Justin Ruba, who added that having another team do the testing makes it carry more weight than something produced in house.
Projects like this are the meat of the showcase — real-world problems solved by senior engineering students putting their college education to the test.
Two teams sponsored by Boeing competed against one another to build the best remote-controlled hovercraft. Some projects were large, some small, some common problems and some more complex. In all, there were 70 projects sponsored by about 60 companies.
Associate Vice President for Research Jeffrey Fortin said the interaction between the industrial world and the students is exactly the kind of thing that the university wants to foster. It’s also a page straight out of President Eric Barron’s emphasis on growing entrepreneurship and cooperation with businesses.
Kyle Tress will be leaving Penn State after graduating this month to go to work in his field of energy engineering. At the showcase, however, he was showing off the solar racers that his team was commissioned to build by Discovery Space. The design allows children to press buttons, triggering lights that power the cars, causing them to drive up a slight hill. It also solved the problem the children’s museum had with a similar exhibit, letting the cars roll gently back down to the starting point instead of having children pull them back with strings, sometimes too roughly.
It’s a simple project with a simple goal, but it answered the client’s need and captured the imagination, enough to walk away with a People’s Choice award and a first-place trophy.