Twenty-four inventions competed for honors in the sixth annual Brainstorm competition and the newer Tong Prototype Prize competition on Friday, February 11. The hard work and dedication of more than 30 student inventors in preparing prototypes, presentations and displays made for difficult deliberations among the professionals assembled to judge the competition.
Chad Sorenson’s TankMate, a microcontroller-based device designed to aid farmers in applying anhydrous-ammonia to fields, won the first place $10,000 prize in the Schoofs Prize competition. Eric Wobig won the new $2,500 Tong Prototype Prize for the StairCrawler, a modified two-wheel hand truck or dolly with a pair of powered “tracks” mounted on the back. To carry heavy loads up stairs, the operator rocks the dolly back until the rubber tracks engage the stairs. A 12-volt battery and motor power the system up the stairs.
The Tong Prototype Prize honors the best prototype developed for the competition. Part of the Tong Prototype Prize fund will also include grants to assist students entry in building prototypes of their ideas whether for other student competitions, design classes or other activities. It will also sponsor the Tong Prototype Prize for the best prototype created for the G. Steven Burrill Technology Business Plan Competition, a student business plan contest to be held in April. The Tong Prototype Prizes and grants are sponsored by the Tong Family Foundation, including COE alumnus Peter P. Tong (MS 1965, electrical and computer engineering).
The new prototype prize and expanded grant structure will encourage more students to try this important type of learning, says College of Engineering Dean Paul S. Peercy. “There is a very important thought process that goes along with building a prototype of an invention,” he said. “We hear from students that creating a prototype caused them to think differently about their invention or idea. They change things because of challenges they have only identified through the prototyping experience. This is a tremendous additional benefit to their learning process.”
Brainstorm is the annual competition honoring the best undergraduate student invention. It is sponsored by the UW Technology Enterprise Cooperative (UW-TEC). COE alumnus Richard J. Schoofs (BS Chemical Engineering 1953) is the contest’s benefactor.
Many of the inventions submitted solved practical problems encountered by the inventor. In the fall of 1998, Schoofs winner Sorenson was riding along in a tractor as his cousin applied anhydrous-ammonia to a field. The train-like rig includes a tractor followed by an implement followed by the anhydrous ammonia tank. With no way to read the level of fluid in the tank from the cab, the crew had to periodically stop the tractor, get out, walk 35 feet back to the tank, climb a ladder and view a 1-and-one-half inch diameter gauge that told them how much of the fertilizer had been applied. Sorenson spent the next year and a half investigating the problem and designing his solution.
“I have an mechanical engineering background but the project is almost completely electrical,” Sorenson says. “I pretty much had to learn microcontroller circuit design on my own last fall. That’s been the biggest benefit of this project. Beyond the money and recognition, I’ve delved into something I wouldn’t have otherwise. Hopefully down the road that will help me to bridge the gap between mechanical and electrical engineering as I pursue other projects.”
Sorenson’s microcontroller takes advantage of the tank’s existing fluid-level measurement system. The data is collected at the tank and then broadcast via radio frequency to a display in the cab. He took advantage of a Tong loan in order to help build his prototype. The loans are forgiven for students who complete a prototype and the competition. “I would probably have pursued this idea regardless of the competition, but I would not have gone after it with the intensity that I did,” says Sorenson. “The deadlines, the Tong funding and the Schoofs Prize gave me a goal to shoot for.”
Wobig, the Tong Prototype Prize winner, also a second place $7,000 prize in the Schoofs Prize competition for his Stair Crawler.
Heidi Behling and Kelly Stevens won the $4,000 third prize for their, Variable Prosthesis Cushioning Device Using Electrorheological Fluid. The device provides variable levels of cushioning through use of an electrorheological fluid. The fluid changes viscosity in response to signals sent from a sensing device.
Four, fourth place winners each earned $1,000 awards: Julie Marshaus’ All Terrain Electric Wheelchair has an extendible wheel base and lowered center of gravity for traversing rough terrain. Lucius Jonett’s Little Fingers Coaxial Connector Tool is a screwdriver-based design for connecting coaxial cable. Scott Westmont’s Safety Wakeboard Binding is a device to reduce common injuries suffered in the water sport, wakeboarding. Brian C. Drews’ Hide-A-Ride is a device for storing mountain bikes on the ceilings of hallways.
The competition was judged by: James Berbee, CEO, Berbee Information Networks Corporation; Oliver Julian, vice president, Design Concepts; Monica McCarthy, director, mechanics and materials science research, Sonoco; Richard Thomas, business consultant and Susan Schmidt-Thompson, operations manager, research and product development, Fiskars, Inc.