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On Campus - Collision Course

- By Bethany Halford     

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 faculty advisor.

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).


On Campus - The Waiting Game

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, less waste.

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.
She can be reached at

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