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On Campus

Spicing Up the Curriculum

Illustration by Jason Farris When you hear someone ask "What's cooking?" at Tufts University's College of Engineering, take the question literally. It may very well be meatloaf. Or muffins. Or pizza.

A pumpkin bread, in fact, served as the final exam-the final cook-off, if you will-for the fall terms Gourmet Engineering class.

The goal? For the final, it was to design a pan that would cook a good-tasting cake, fast. The goal of the course, however, is much larger, explains class teacher and Engineering Dean Ioannis Miaoulis. Indeed, it is to teach students that "engineering is everywhere."

Gourmet Engineering is one of the 50 engineering elective courses developed by faculty members out of their own personal and research interests, Miaoulis says. For instance, one music lover teaches a course on the design and performance of musical instruments; other courses include Clean Your Room, which addresses environmental engineering, and Microbrewery Engineering. And Miaoulis, as happy with a fishing rod in his hand as he is with a measuring cup or rolling pin, also teaches A River Runs Through It, a course on life in moving fluid.

Every Tufts engineering student is required to take two of the electives, which are designed to help students recognize that the engineering principles they study so arduously in the classroom are also at play in all facets of their lives.

For example, "When I cook, basically I'm applying heat transfer principles," Miaoulis says. The 20 students in his Gourmet Engineering class, offered for the first time last fall, studied heat conduction by baking meatloaf, radiation by broiling fish, microwaves by warming left-overs, and the thermodynamics of water by boiling eggs. The proof, they found, really is in the pudding: intimidating equations actually manifest themselves in very practical pursuits.

Patrick Brophy, a freshman engineering student who thinks of himself as a fairly accomplished cook, says he enjoyed connecting engineering principles to cooking practices as well as the interesting problem-solving situations he encountered.

The final exam is a good example, he explains. He was part of the winning team that produced a pumpkin bread cake in only 11 minutes and 26 seconds. Using what they learned about heat transfer and convection, the group designed a perfectly square pan, similar to a lasagna pan, with little pipes rising through it. Teammate Erika-Renee Carson, a senior engineering and psychology major, says the pan they designed "looked like a domino from the top."

Brophy says the cake, quickly cooked though it was, tasted fine. But, he added, they were lucky that appearance wasn't part of the requirement for a passing grade.

"Our cake wasn't too pretty," he says, because of all the holes caused by the convection pipes. "It needed whipped cream or something to make it prettier."

Miaoulis says the class was a hit all the way around. "I enjoyed teaching it. My colleagues enjoyed helping out. The students enjoyed it. We got back the reviews and they were all very good," he says.

What's more, the experience strengthened his belief "that one could be a better cook by understanding the engineering parts. But I also think if we educate our students to think in engineering terms in everyday life, in turn they will be better engineers."

There also another benefit: You can eat the experiments.

For more information, see the Gourmet Engineering home page at www.tufts.edu/as/tampl/en43 .

-J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The Funny Side of E School

There are many places you'd expect to find a nuclear engineer-a lab, a classroom, a power plant-but in the comics? Yet that's exactly where you'll find Darren Bleuel's Nukees, a strip about the life and times of a nuclear engineering student.

Bleuel, a University of California Ph.D. candidate, tells people, "I'm a cartoonist, but my hobby is nuclear engineering." His biweekly strip has been a fixture on the pages of the Daily Californian, the university's campus newspaper, since 1997.

A self-taught artist who also paints, writes, and plays classical piano, Bleuel decided to start Nukees after he and a friend lamented what they called "the sad state of affairs" on the regular comics page. They just couldn't relate to The Family Circus or Cathy, so Bleuel came up with characters and situations that were closer to his world.

Mixing Fact and Fiction

Does art imitate life, or vice versa? It's a little bit of both in Nukees. Bleuel says that some characters and settings are based on real people and events, but others are the product of his imagination. Gav, the main character, is modeled after Bleuel himself. In fact, the resemblance between the artist and his comic alter ego-physical and otherwise-is striking. The Danny and King Luca characters are also based on real people. However, Dr. Goldfinger, the evil professor, is a composite of all the educators Bleuel has encountered in his 10 years of college, and the character is the epitome of their most annoying attributes.

Nukees' story lines also dance between fact and fiction. Some days, Bleuel finds himself in the midst of an event saying, "That's gotta go down in the strip," while other days he finds himself making it up as he goes along.

"The line between fiction and reality can get fuzzy sometimes," Bleuel admits, recalling a recent misunderstanding. In one series of strips, Gav's advisor informs him that the funding for his research has been canceled and that he'll have to continue his work for free. The plot prompted two faculty members to ask Bleuel's advisor, "What happened to Darren? Why did his funding get canceled? Can't you help him?" His funding was fine, of course; it was just a plot point he had made up.

Bleuel says he gets a lot of positive comments about the strip, particularly from readers who visit his Web site, where every strip is posted. For a complete archive of Nukees, see www.nuc.berkeley.edu/gav/nukees .

Beyond Berkeley

While the strip obviously gets a lot of attention at Berkeley, Bleuel would like to see it gain popularity beyond the campus. He has tried to sell it to other outlets, but as of yet has had no luck, probably because syndicators are turned off by the subject matter. He insists, however, that "while the strip is about nuclear engineering and physicists, I try my best to make the humor universal so that anyone will get it."

And then there's the Dilbert factor. Because Nukees is a comic strip about engineering, comparisons to that other cartoon engineer are inevitable. But Bleuel thinks Nukees explores a niche in the world of science not covered by Scott Adams' character. "Dilbert has moved beyond engineering to basic office relations," he says. Besides, he boasts, "Some people actually prefer my strip over Dilbert."

What does the future hold for Bleuel? In 10 or 15 years, you may very well find him furthering his radiation research in a lab. But if Bleuel has his way, Gav and company will be household names, tucked between Peanuts and Doonesbury on the pages of newspapers everywhere.

- Andrea Gabrick

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