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Engineering EXPO 2009 sparks interest in students for science

There is nothing like
a bolt of lightning to introduce the world of engineering to elementary, middle and high school students—especially when the 6-kilowatt generator and Tesla coil that produced it are controlled and explained by a charismatic electrical and computer engineering graduate student.

The student, Dan Ludois, was one of more than 300 university volunteers who worked at Engineering EXPO 2009, a biennial event that draws thousands of local students to the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering campus. From April 16-18, more than 5,000 students and community members descended on the campus to explore almost 90 exhibits, presentations and competitions by engineering students, faculty and industry sponsors.

2009 Engineering EXPO

For Mitch Springer, a mechanical engineering undergraduate student who co-organized EXPO along with engineering mechanics student Doug Knox, the experience was overwhelmingly exciting. “The kids were so interested, and it was inspiring to see their eyes light up when you tell and show them about engineering,” he says. “You can almost see the moment when they start thinking, ‘Hey, this engineering thing . . . I think I want to do this!’”

EXPO organizers’ key strategy for providing that spark of inspiration was ensuring a broad diversity of exhibits. Every engineering department was represented, and research and inventions by both graduate and undergraduate students were displayed alongside exhibits from many engineering student organizations. Topics ranged from a flight simulator created by engineering mechanics students to an autonomous robot that rolled around Engineering Mall as part of the IEEE Robot Team.

EXPO advisor Kathy Prem, senior student services coordinator for Engineering Career Services, also credits the volunteers who ran the individual exhibits for the success of EXPO. “These student exhibitors dedicate an incredible amount of time and effort to EXPO, during months of preparation, for the duration of the three-day event,” she says.

2009 Engineering EXPO
2009 Engineering EXPO

Civil and environmental engineering student Samantha Reuter was one of the exhibitors for the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders. Early in the morning of the first day of EXPO, she sat on the grass of Engineering Mall and hammered holes into a metal grater to make a potato chipper. She said she was looking forward to teaching EXPO visitors about the work her organization does for communities in developing nations around the world. By the end of EXPO, Reuter’s potato chipper created an orange mound of grated yams, and a panel of faculty and industry judges selected EWB as one of the top student organization exhibits for their booth on wastewater treatment in El Salvador. (The Biomedical Engineering Society took the top organization prize and $800.)

Electrical and computer engineering student Adam Hughes also won $800 as the best individual undergraduate exhibitor. He presented his independent study project on vertical axis wind turbines, which he says may be a low-cost source of energy for poor, rural communities. He demonstrated a vertical axis turbine and showed a video of the turbine undergoing tests in a giant wind tunnel in Engineering Hall.

2009 Engineering EXPO

2009 Engineering EXPO (large image)

“Expo is a great event for engineering students not only because it is a great chance to showcase their ongoing work, but also because it is an incredible opportunity to interact with the surrounding community coming from outside of the walls of the university,” Hughes says, adding that he had the chance to interact with representatives from Vestas, the world's largest wind turbine manufacturer, as well as farmers who host turbines on their land.

Hughes was fortunate to have his booth located near one of the most eye-catching displays. Engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi constructed a model of the engineering campus entirely out of LEGOS, and passersby especially enjoyed the LEGO Star Wars characters dueling on top of the model Engineering Research Building.

Biomedical engineering student Emily Malinowski was responsible for coordinating the student exhibits. She, along with Springer, Knox and 13 other students on the planning team, spent two years preparing for this year's EXPO. In the end, “the whole event held me in awe,” says Springer. “All of the work was worth it.”