- By Bethany Halford
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
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."
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.