Fountain of knowledge:
Students maintain campus centerpiece
For three years, mechanical engineering graduate student Chris Meyer has combated such challenges as rust, lime, broken pipes, crab apples, and powerful jets of water that send his glasses flying.
It’s all in a day’s work for one of the “keepers of the fountain,” as Meyer refers to the members of Enlight, a small student organization interested in computer and electronic technologies. Enlight members take care of the iconic 18-foot-high sculpture, Máquina (Spanish for machine), on Engineering Mall.
Thanks to a gift in 2008 from National Instruments, his job has gotten easier. National Instruments donated a $9,000 CompactRIO programmable automation controller that, when combined with the National Instruments LabVIEW graphical programming language, allows Enlight members to program the fountain to perform a variety of special effects. “The fountain is a perfect application for what we do, and we’re really excited about the different possibilities,” says National Instruments Applications Engineering Manager Casey Weltzin (BSECE ’06). “The fountain is something everyone on campus is going to look at and learn from.”
The fountain was installed in the Engineering Mall in 1999. Designed by St. Louis artist and UW-Madison alumnus William Conrad Severson, Máquina is intended to be an interactive experience with air and water in all forms.
Water shoots out of alternating valves on the fountain, then flows down the base of the sculpture into a spillway that stretches to a pool at the northern end. There, compressed air forces water and bubbles up a 22-foot-high clear column; at its top, water runs out and spills back into the pool.
Enlight adopted the fountain in 2003, shortly after the organization’s formation. Though maintaining it is not Enlight members’ sole focus, it is their most time-intensive effort. Enlight members are making full use of the fountain’s interactive potential. They have programmed the infrared proximity sensors inside the stainless steel poles in front of Máquina along Engineering Drive. The sensors can change the pattern of the valves when the sensor is covered by a hand. When activated, the bollards can trigger intense jets of water or even shut the fountain off entirely.
To allow for even more customization, Enlight members have installed a kiosk in Engineering Hall that enables fountain-watchers to control the individual valves via a liquid crystal display touchscreen. Viewers can turn specific valves on and off to create original patterns in the water.
In the future, group members plan to add additional temperature and wind sensors to better determine when to turn on the winter mist caps, which create columns of ice. They also have discussed running light-emitting diode lights into the fountain and connecting Dance Dance Revolution pads to allow viewers to control the fountain with their feet.
Running the fountain isn’t merely play. Meyer and several fellow students clean and maintain it. They climb down a ladder into a nearby manhole to reach the fountain control room, where they’ve battled floods and the seasonal plague of crab apples that clog the fountain.
At the end of the day, though, the effort is worth it. “You’re working on something people see every day,” says Meyer. “It’s fun because it’s a centerpiece of campus, yet no one realizes it’s student-run.”