Prism Magazine - March 2003
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- By Bethany Halford       

Power to the people

For most engineering students, traveling for a research project means a trip to the labs across campus. But Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Sonja Bjork, Jacklyn Maiorano, Benjamin Charbonneau, and Andrew West's research project meant a taking a plane to Bangkok, an overnight train ride, an 8-hour bus trip, and a 3-hour drive into Thailand's northwestern mountains. "Then you reach a point where the road doesn't go any further," says Bjork, "and it's a two-hour hike from there." 

This odyssey took the four engineering and computer science students to Kre Khi, a remote village of raised mud-and-stick houses that is home to about 60 people. Here they set out to electrify the local schoolhouse. Teachers wanted enough energy to power a TV and VCR so the schoolchildren could learn the common dialect of the Thai language. They also wanted to light the school at night where the adults now take classes by candlelight. Currently, a diesel generator provides the only source of electricity to the isolated paradise which Bjork says has beautiful views, clean air, and "pigs and cows running all over the place." Because of the long hike to get fuel, the villagers use the generator only once a week—to light their path to and from the monastery. And local utility companies don't see Kre Khi getting hooked into the power grid for another 15 or 20 years.  

After two months of surveying, calculating, and meeting with a renewable energy specialist, the students designed an eco-friendly microhydroelectric generator that uses a nearby stream. Water would be diverted from the stream to turn a turbine and then returned to its original course.

The trip was part of the Interactive Quality Project—a program that brings WPI juniors from different disciplines together to tackle a scientific and technical challenge but also addresses a larger social issue. Some of the projects are located stateside, but others place students all around the world. Bjork finds the interdisciplinary experience invaluable, "I'm a computer science major, but I don't want to sit in front of a computer all my life." 


Cyber soldiers on the march

Imagine a college lecture where not only cellphones are forbidden but also pen and paper. Where armed guards stand outside and students are turned away as a matter of national security. As part of the Information Warfare Club, students from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point have the unique opportunity to attend highly sensitive briefings by the Secret Service, FBI, and National Security Agency, to name a few.

Sparked by student interest in the growing field of information assurance, the club seeks to teach the future military leaders about cyber defense. "Basically, it's protecting computers from the bad guys," says Major Greg Conti, an assistant professor in the electrical engineering and computer science department. Conti, who moderates the club along with Lt. Colonel Dan Ragsdale and Major Scott Lathrop, stresses the importance of secure information in today's military, where information is sent electronically over thousands of miles, and any compromise can mean casualties. He says the bombing of the USS Cole illustrates this point; terrorists apparently knew where the ship's canteen was and targeted it in order to maximize their damage.

Known more formally as SIGSAC (Special Interest Group for Security, Audit, and Control), the club began two years ago with 80 students and has grown to include 450 cadets—more than 10 percent of the student body—from every academic department at West Point. "We have activities that will appeal to just about anybody," says Conti. Club members recently attended a lecture given by one of World War II's Navajo Code Talkers, who transmitted secret messages using the Navajo language.

" This is the cutting edge," says club co-chair Cadet Mike Hastings, explaining his interest in the club, "It's the mystery of the whole thing." Club chair Cadet Jason C. Kim agrees. "There are things I wouldn't have been aware of if it weren't for SICSAC, even as an electrical engineering major."

The club also has a cyber defense lab of a few dozen computers where the students design secure computer systems and then try to break into them and expose any weaknesses—although they bristle at any reference to this as hacking. West Point has a very strict policy on malicious use. "You can't do that on a regular school computer without getting into big trouble," says Hastings.


Playing to the Upper Deck

When Kansas State University opened an upper deck for its football stadium, it meant that 8,000 more fans could cheer and paint themselves purple. But they couldn't catch the T-shirts that K-State mascot Willie the Wildcat shot from his little T-shirt gun, because he couldn't fire them high enough.  

Willie's power problem inspired the engineers at K-State– Salina, a satellite engineering technology school about 60 miles away from the main campus. "Being the ‘more power' kind of guys that we are, we decided those guys in the upper deck were being cheated," says Greg Spaulding, an associate professor of mechanical engineering technology.  

So Spaulding recruited mechanical engineering technology major Bob Henning to build a cannon that could launch T-shirts into the upper deck. Henning—who builds and repairs paintball guns for fun—said that he envisioned the cannon as just a big paintball gun. It only took him two weeks and $100 to build the Cat Cannon. The machine uses SCUBA tanks as a source of compressed air to hurl the T-shirts 300 feet in the air. Henning says the most difficult challenge was getting it to work on the field. The angle needed to be just right so that the projectile apparel wouldn't hit people in the head, but rather descend gently from just above their grasp. "It showed me what all was involved in getting a design up and running," he says. "You do all the calculations and everything, you test it, and you think it will work. But it doesn't and you've got to figure out what you've missed." 

" About a dozen students—known as the Cat Cannon Crew—currently work on the project. They maintain the machine and bring it to K-State home games and events across the state. With more than 50,000 screaming fans at the stadium, the crew makes safety a top priority. "The first time we make a big mistake will be the last time we make it out on the field," says Henning. They've also built the next-generation cannon—one that is lighter and more durable. 

But entertainment and flying casual wear isn't all that the cannon gives students from K-State–Salina. "The Cat Cannon has given our campus a visibility that we didn't have before," says Spaulding. With the main Manhattan campus an hour away, Salina's 1,000 or so students often feel removed from the big university's athletic events. "It's the only way a student from K-Salina can get on the field," says Henning. "It shows them there's more than just going to and from classes."


Bethany Halford is associate editor at Prism magazine.
She can be reached at

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