ASEE Prism Online = April 2002
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On Campus

- By Erin Drenning and Allison Stack

Mobile Homes

Students from 14 colleges across the country will converge on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this fall with houses in tow. University teams from Pittsburgh to Puerto Rico and everywhere in between will haul their sun-powered homes to the capital to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's first Solar Decathlon in September.

Participants will be judged on 10 factors—hence the title, “decathlon”—including basic elements such as ventilation, refrigeration, and lighting, along with more advanced details like adequate power supply for a small home business complete with computers, fax machines, and other electronics.

University of Missouri-Rolla team leader Chris Stevens, a freshman in aerospace engineering, is excited about the impact of solar living on the environment. “We can build houses that don't contribute to greenhouse gases and depletion of natural resources,” he says. “I've got to be involved with something like that.” And people don't have to wait until 2020 or 2010 or even 2005 for the technology. It is available now, he says.

Solar Decathlon teams were chosen last March by the DOE, which celebrated April's Earth Day with a kickoff workshop for participants. The weeklong decathlon is open to the public to tour the students' designs.







A Fish Tale Cyber Style

Even if your antiquated computer keeps crashing, you may not have it dump it. Three Rowan University engineering grad students have put a unique spin on recycling monitors that is both creative and lucrative.

Brian Fitzpatrick, Mike Ciocco, and Jeremy Neyhart found that constant upgrades can eventually turn a computer into more trash than treasure. But instead of letting them pile up in landfills, the trio rescues monitors that are headed for the dumpster and transforms them into functional art.

“The whole thing started because we always wanted a fish tank that looked like a screensaver, and over the summer we decided to build one,”says Fitzpatrick, a mechanical engineering student. The three made several unsuccessful attempts to construct their own but found that the best method was to buy a pre-made tank and fit it into an old computer monitor shell. And then they added the fish.

“We fooled a couple of our professors—they thought it was a real monitor with an awesome screensaver,” Fitzpatrick continues. “They also thought it would be a great thing to potentially market and sell.”

The students made their first sale in January and are doing fairly well for a new company. They're doing good too—if the trio doesn't salvage a monitor, it will almost surely be trashed, since it cannot be reused very easily.

Now that's quite a screen “saver.”


Water Gets a Good Scrubbing in Nepal

Five children die every hour in Nepal because their drinking water is contaminated. And that sobering statistic doesn't count anyone over the age of five.

Waterborne disease is of epidemic proportions in much of the developing world—UNICEF estimated that 1.7 billion people were without clean drinking water in 2000. But civil and environmental engineering graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working to change that.

MIT professor Susan Murcott learned of the importance of clean drinking water in 1998 when she met women in Nepal who had walked two and three days to attend the Second International Women and Water Conference. Since then, she and her students have labored to produce a system that efficiently and effectively removes disease-causing microorganisms and particles from water. So far, the most promising processes are household solar disinfection—a simple, inexpensive technique by which microbes are killed by ultraviolet radiation from the sun through clear, plastic bottles—and a filtration system designed by a Canadian professor that sieves the water through several layers of sand.

Starting in 1999, many of Murcott's students have taken turns each semester at solving the problem through the university's Nepal Water Project. This January, eight MIT students spent a month in Nepal while four went to Haiti and four others traveled to Brazil in the hopes of improving water supplies.


Mighty Little Mouse

Computer engineering students at the University of California, Santa Barbara are experimenting with a mouse; however, there is no point and click involved. Dubbed the “micromouse,” this is a small self-contained robot no larger than a sheet of loose-leaf paper that is designed and programmed to navigate through a maze.

By combining computer and electrical technology and mechanics, students are constructing a freestanding “mouse” with the ability to explore different maze designs and select the shortest and quickest way to the center. This incorporation of classroom theory into practice has propelled “micromouse” into the curriculum of UCSB's new computer engineering program. Students in the program must complete a research project, and micromouse is being offered as one of the major project options for the first time this spring.

Competitions to build the best mouse sprang up across the United States after IEEE introduced the concept in 1977.

The importance of these competitions is that students gain a sense of the real world: working in teams, dealing with companies, and meeting deadlines, says Lynda Thompson, assistant director of the program. “Micromouse designing spans a continuum of performance,” she says. “Some students can just implement the basic features; others can do extraordinary things with it.”

This little mouse can be pretty big.


Stars and Stripes Forever

The surge in American patriotism this year has erupted in all forms, from bumper stickers and T-shirts to banners plastered on highway overpasses. Now, engineering students will put as much thought into raising the flag as many do in the symbolism behind it.

This year's Rube Goldberg Machine Contest challenges university teams to build a contraption that lifts and waves a flag. The catch? The process has to take at least 20 steps. The annual Rube Goldberg competition—named for the Pullitzer Prize-winning artist who lampooned the technology of his day in his series of “Invention” cartoons—started in 1946 as a rivalry between two engineering fraternities at Purdue University, but interest waned and the contest was abandoned a few years later. The local competition was resurrected by Purdue's campus chapter of Theta Tau, a professional engineering fraternity, in 1983, and the contest went national for the first time in 1988. Since then, university teams have created complex machines to complete such simple tasks as sharpening a pencil, making coffee, and screwing in a lightbulb.

Purdue's Society of Professional Engineers were victorious in Theta Tau's 20th annual local Rube Goldberg contest in February. The group's “Mission to Mars” sends a “Martian Land Rover” down a track and has an astronaut exit the vehicle, climb a mountain, and hoist the American flag in 50 steps. The SPE will take on the challenge of defending Purdue's title in the national competition, slated for April 6 in West Lafayette, Ind.

Erin Drenning is an associate editor at Prism magazine.
She can be reached by e-mail at