On Thursday, some Penn State engineering students learned how to walk on water — and it wasn’t even for extra credit.
Freshmen enrolled in the summer session’s Engineering Design class spent the better part of the early evening at the campus outdoor pool, where they tested designs for buoyant platforms and floatation devices that would allow them to meander across the surface of the water on their feet.
“It’s about realism and understanding the context of the problems they address,” said Thomas Colledge, an assistant professor of engineering design at Penn State.
In previous years, Colledge had students focus solely on addressing the problems presented by a directive to walk on water. This time around, he realized that all the walking in the world means nothing without a place to go.
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That’s where the platforms entered the picture.
The project was divided into three primary groups, each split into teams of two working on solving different sides of the problem.
On Thursday night, each group took turns addressing the class, one half presenting their prototype for a stable platform and the other a (hopefully) working method for stepping across the surface of the water.
“Engineering is not just sitting down and crunching some numbers. It’s experimenting,” Colledge said.
Students Rahul Pendurthi and Cody Kubicki went through two other prototypes of their floating platform before developing the version that made its debut Thursday night.
The students were instructed to tailor their products to suit prospective consumers and not the eye of the designer.
Pendurthi and Kubicki used Arts Fest as an opportunity to poll the general public to see what they would want from a platform or a boat.
Answers mostly boiled down to recreational activities like tanning or jumping into the water.
One of the teams’ original models was constructed using water barrels to provide buoyancy but they caused the structure to rise too high and become wobbly.
“You have to be very careful about what materials you use,” Pendurthi said.
Their final design, constructed from plywood and polystyrene foam, was built with an eye toward holding two or three people at a time.
Timing was of the essence. Due to the condensed timetable of the summer session, a project that would typically take almost two months had to be crunched into two and a half weeks.
Students tested their initial designs Tuesday, leaving only a day or so to make any improvements.
The time crunch did help to emphasize one crucial element of engineering.
“You have to think of many options and then find the best one,” Nick Pasquini, an engineering student, said.
Pasquini was one of the group members responsible for the walking on water portion of the challenge.
His team’s final product was reached after a lot of online research and calculations.
Faintly resembling skis made of foam with some wood for bracing, the flotation devices sported two adjustable sandals nailed into the frame for foot placement.
According to the calculations Pasquini and his team performed, the apparatus could support up to 276 pounds.
Their initial test on Tuesday proved successful.
“It worked for us the first time, so we’re hoping it works again today,” Pasquini said.
They did work — at least for a little while.
During the demonstration period, the group’s flotation devices and platform each performed adequately, but during a competitive water walk-off against the other two teams, the screws holding one of the sandals in place came loose, causing a student to slip into the water.
“Failure is good as long as you learn rapidly from it,” Colledge said.