CVU students breeze through regional design competition

By Colin Ryan
Observer correspondent

When the students in Champlain Valley Union’s Design and Engineering Technology class sailed wind-powered vehicles past a series of fans during a competition at the University of Vermont on Saturday, they were effectively taking their final exam.

Three teams from CVU – The Hex Nut Smugglers, Rhumb Runners and The Gnarwhal Project – competed in the 17th annual “Blowing in the Wind” challenge hosted by UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Design TASC, or Technology and Society Connection. The competition brought 48 teams from 19 schools in Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

The challenge asked students to design and build “ships” – wheeled vehicles with sails – that could fit within a standard paper ream box. The ships had to transport cargo of pennies, washers and bolts using only wind from simple store-bought box fans to move.

The intention of the competition was to motivate students in a way that will last far beyond the competition, according to Dawn Densmore, director of Outreach and Public Relations for UVM College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

Past challenges have included using a single hand crank electric generator to retrieve food cans and launching ping-pong balls into different sized trash bins.

“How do we make sure we’re keeping the pace with the rest of the world in terms of technology?” Densmore asked. “We do that by getting them charged about doing these kinds of projects, so that when they proceed to hard-core math and advanced engineering, they have enough wind in their sails to carry them through.”

CVU’s Design and Engineering teacher Olaf Verdonk attempts to achieve a similar goal in his class, which he described as “a professional engineering environment.” Verdonk asks each student to submit a resume of relevant skills, such as web design, computer-aided drawing (CAD) and metal fabrication.

At the “Blowing in the Wind” competition, Verdonk said, “They (the students) have had three months to come up with a working solution to the problem. The class is a way for them to get a true engineering experience, where they’re given a problem they have to engineer a solution for.

“The students have been working since mid-September on creating solutions, researching, drawing rough prototypes, testing, and they’ve done a really remarkable job. And the best thing is, today they’ll see many different ways of solving this problem. This is when their eyes open up.”

At least one CVU student, Williston resident Jesi Booth of The Gnarwhal Project – who referred to being the only female in Verdonk’s design class as “the story of my life” – saw the competition and class as a good experience in her quest for a career.

“I plan to go to college to become a materials engineer, which will definitely have design associated with it,” Booth said. “I like designing – both the process and the end result of creating something, which is more mechanical engineering. But if I can design something like this and make it work, that would be a good thing. Now if only our vehicle works…”

Not only did Gnarwhal’s design work, it won took home awards, as did the vehicles from the other two teams.

Team Rhumb Runners, with Newton Hausermann, John Hill, David Jensen and Matt Mainer, missed the grand prize for the IBM Highest Scoring School Award, but took first place, $500 and an IBM ThinkPad.

In the Goodrich Uphill Awards, which challenged teams to move their ships uphill, The Hex Nut Smugglers – Ian Hunt, Eric King, Holden Ranz, Thomas Moore and Cyrus Schenck – came in second place, earning $250. The Gnarwhal Project, with Ryan Mills, Andrew Giroux, Jesi Booth and Eric Kolibas, came in third place, winning $125.

The Gnarwhal Project also took the $250 second place prize for the IEEE Design Notebook Award.

“I’m really excited that UVM does something like this, and I’m thankful for the local corporations that support it, because it’s a fantastic experience for any kid who is interested in pursuing engineering,” said Verdonk. “I told my students right from the beginning that this class was about coming up with a design that would meet the requirements of the competition. If they couldn’t do that, they’d have a lot of trouble passing my class. Today my students did well, they learned a lot, and, I’m happy to say, nobody failed.”