Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM)
can describe its annual kinetic sculpture race in just four words:
Art collides with engineering. Invented by Hobart Brown in California
more than 30 years ago, a kinetic sculpture race is what you'd
get if you crossed the Tournament of Roses Parade with the Indianapolis
500, but made everyone junk their engines and use welded-together bits
of bicycle instead.
On April 26, AVAM will host the fifth annual East Coast
championship race, a 15-mile trek over mud, sand, water, and Baltimore
city streets. And while most of the participants are rag-tag teams
of artists, a few engineering students are gearing up to be contenders.
The Carver Center for Arts and Technology—a magnet
high school for the arts in Baltimore—may seem an unlikely place
for an engineering club. But behind the remains of a 24-foot styrofoam
head, in a corner of Carver's back lot lies the club's
latest project—the black iron skeleton of the Bartmobile. A welded-together
collection of metal rods, old bike frames, and lawn chairs, it's
the handiwork of Jeff Bartolomeo, a network systems engineer with the
Social Security Administration.
After winning the AVAM race in 2000, Bartolomeo decided
to team up with local high school students to give his creation a new
life. So each year the Bartmobile has a phoenix-like rebirth. Students
build new artwork and rebuild the structure that drives the sculpture. "Working
with a school is easier, because there is less pressure on me," says
Bartolomeo. "When I worked alone, the design was entirely
up to me, but I also had to do everything." This year, a team
of eight Carver art students are making a 13-foot high erupting volcano
to fit over the engineering club's rebuilt Bartmobile.
" It's broken down pretty much every year," says
Bartolomeo, thumping one of the five 30-gallon plastic barrels that
once held grape juice concentrate but now will help the sculpture float
in the aquatic portion of the race. But so far that hasn't deterred
his team of engineers—three juniors in the high school engineering
club, Jonathan Taylor, Steven Sapp, and Nick Henderson, and Carver
science and engineering teachers Duncan Clements and Phil Brower. In
fact, working around the inherent difficulties in making an all-terrain,
human-powered vehicle is what drives the whole project—from an
academic point of view. "The whole process is about problem solving," says
Clements. "It's a continuous challenge to come up with
an idea that works."
" I've always like taking stuff apart and
putting it back together," says Taylor. And he and the other
students have certainly done that. They are fundamentally involved
in every part of the process—from design to construction to piloting
the craft; they've learned to arc-weld and have scavenged local
bike and motorcycle repair shops for parts.
" Sharing this project with high school students
adds so much," says Bartolomeo. "Everything gets increased—creativity,
possibilities, enthusiasm. I used to spend hours alone in my garage
welding bike parts together. I begged my friends to accompany
me to the local area boat ramp for water/floatation tests. Since
I've joined forces with the school kids, I've gained a
new perspective on the whole event."
About an hour away at Thomas Jefferson High School for
Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., Lucy Terrell and Julie Miller
are hoping to give the Carver team a run for their money. The two high
school seniors are working on a human-powered kinetic sculpture as
part of required independent project in prototype design.
Terrell and Miller say that they're not really
sure what sort of artform their sculpture will take, but they've
batted around the idea of a giant banana. "Our artistic design
has been kind of lost in just getting it to function," says Miller.
So far, getting parts has turned out to be the biggest obstacle for
the students; local brake and muffler shops have generously donated
the muffler piping that makes up the majority of the structure. But
Terrell and Miller had to scrap their original idea for an eight-wheeled
machine because they simply couldn't get that many wheels. Their
current design is a two-person powered tricycle. "It's
kind of a treasure hunt," says Richard Buxton, the team's
Designing a craft to travel the multiterrain racecourse
has given the students a chance to learn about many different engineering
considerations, from ball bearings to buoyancy. And Terrell says the
hands-on process has made learning a lot more fun and given her skills
she would have never gotten in a classroom: "I'm a lot
more comfortable with asking people for stuff on the phone, which is
a valuable life skill." Miller is considering majoring in engineering
when she gets to college next year and is trying to convince Terrell
to do the same.
Once they've finished the race, the Thomas Jefferson
students will complete their project by analyzing what worked and where
things went wrong. Terrell is afraid of sinking, and Miller thinks
they could get stuck in the mud. Of course, from the Kinetic Sculpture
Race point of view, neither would represent a total failure. AVAM not
only gives prizes for finishing first, art, and engineering, but also
gives the Mediocre Award (for being the team to finish in the middle),
the Next to Last Award (for the penultimate finish), and the Golden
Dinosaur (for the most memorable breakdown).
Long cafeteria lines usually inspire college students
to order out. But where their classmates saw a chance to call Domino's,
four Cornell students saw a business opportunity. "Why wait in
line when you can order online?" asks Webfood Inc. founders and
roommates Peter Krebs, Ari Parnes, Lou Licari, and Tim Campbell. Fed
up with spending too much valuable studying time waiting to in line
to eat, they decided to start a Web-based food-ordering service that
lets students order their meals online. Webfood customers select what
they'd like to eat from the campus dining hall and specify when
they want to pick their meals up. So when the designated time arrives,
they don't have to wait in line and they don't have to
wait for their food to be made. They simply go to the register and
pay, bypasssing cafeteria traffic.
The Webfood founders say their system doesn't
just help students get fresh food fast; it also gives Cornell's
food-service workers a chance to do some advance planning for the day.
If they know ten people want burgers at 12:30, they can make them up
all at once, rather than cooking them one at a time. Less waiting,
Krebs, a civil engineering major, created the program
that powers Webfood and Campbell works with Web design and user support.
The business responsibilities fall to Licari and Parnes, who at 23
is the young company's president. All four have graduated from
Cornell and are trying to expand their enterprise. More than 2,000
Cornell students currently use the system and 11 other universities
have flirted with the idea of bringing Webfood to their campuses.
Bethany Halford is associate editor at Prism.
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.