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By Kelly Gordon and Dionne Walker

No Buisness Like Show Business

A Bucknell engineering student with a computer strapped to his back tests a snowboard.
Barreling down a Pennsylvania mountain with computers strapped to their backs is not how most engineering students imagine senior design projects. But for those at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., who spent last winter break doing just that, it was a chance to learn about snowboard design while helping a local business get on its feet.

The eight junior and senior mechanical and electrical engineering students spent a few days at Seven Springs ski resort, some 200 miles from the school, testing specially outfitted snowboards as part of an innovative senior project. The year-long program, developed by associate mechanical engineering professor Keith Buffinton and assistant mechanical engineering professor Steven Shooter, called for students to gather data on snowboard design, then build a robot and create a computer program. In the end, the student-developed technology will be used to help fledgling snowboard manufacturer Walbridge Design and Manufacturing build better boards.

"The project came about after Walbridge Design asked for help in developing new ways to test snowboards," says Shooter, who is approached by several companies each year seeking engineering design expertise. Shooter says he helped start the program because of the student interest he knew it would generate. He also wanted to demonstrate the importance of involving real customers in student design, something that can't be done with "canned" projects. "Students gain a much richer experience from the interactions with the clients and dealing with the variety of issues that arise," says Shooter.

"One of the important things about the technology was that it can translate qualitative terms into quantitative ones," says Fred Luchsinger, a recent engineering graduate—and avid snowboarder—who participated in the program. Usually, a board is designed, manufactured, then tested by a professional snowboarder—a process that doesn't provide much technical feedback, Luchsinger says. Instead of a professional rider simply rating a board, the students collected more objective data while the pro was riding.

Snowboard-testing robot with pneumatic actuators can simulate the heel and toe forces for each leg.

The first stage of the project involved field testing some of Walbridge's boards, which the students outfitted with strain gauges and an accelerometer to measure deflections and vibrations. Information was then collected by a laptop computer carried in a padded backpack the riders wore while snowboarding. From this data, they designed a robot that simulated the board's action on the slopes and a computer program which re-created different slope situations, such as straightaways and jumps. The new equipment allowed the students to improve current board designs and invent new ones.

While the students involved in the project learned a lot about economics and production, one of the most valuable results was new-found confidence in themselves and what they could accomplish, says Shooter. "Perhaps the most important thing they gained is confidence in their ability to design and fabricate a real, working system."

Kelly Gordon and Dionne Walker are former Prism editorial interns.

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