A High-Five for Engineering 5

Carol Brevart-Demm

A High-Five for Engineering 5 

by Carol Brévart-Demm
10/24/2008

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Members of the winning team start their device on its descent.

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On a stormy fall afternoon, anyone driving into the Hicks parking lot would have been surprised to see groups of students - apparently oblivious to the pouring rain -standing among the parked cars and gazing intently at the third-floor Mural Room windows, where members of the half-credit Engineering 5 (Engineering Methodology) course waited for the go-ahead to begin their first project presentation -the Tennis Ball Drop. In addition to spectators in the parking lot, clusters of students peered through the Hicks lounge windows, one floor below the drop zone.

Under the tutelage of Professor of Engineering Erik Cheever '82, the 41 class members - all freshmen - were divided into five-to-seven-member teams and assigned the task of creating a device that would maximize the length of time a tennis ball could stay in the air when released from a state of rest from the Hicks rooftop. Allowable building materials comprised three dowel rods, a paper bag, the tennis ball, a plastic trash bag, one roll of electrical tape in a case, one paper clip, and three rubber bands. Due to the weather, the launch site was moved indoors.

One by one, teams dropped their devices from the windows, which - using the plastic bag in flat, balloon, or cone shapes - variously floated, spun, and drifted to the ground, to shouts of approval and applause. One landed on a ledge and was disqualified; others became caught on bushes.

Members of the winning team - choosing not to create a parachute-like air-resistant device - relied rather on the force of friction: Puncturing the tennis ball, they drove two dowels through it to form an X-shape, made a 30-foot cable by folding the electrical tape in half along its length so that the sticky side adhered to itself, and wrapped the tape in a figure eight around the two longest protruding lengths of the X. Attaching the free end of the tape to the third dowel's end to hold the device as far from the building as possible, they released it and watched the "cable" unravel from the dowels over a period of 15.44 seconds, more than three times longer than most of the other devices.

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One of the course's main themes is collaboration, says Erik Cheever '82.

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"They had the most unique interpretation of the rules," says Cheever, a graduate of Swarthmore's Engineering Program. "They were not allowed to just tape the ball to the wall; it had to fall. I tried to give them as much leeway as possible, and there's always one group that comes up with something really far out."

Cheever explains that one of the main themes of Engineering Methodology - which introduces students to a variety of aspects of engineering - is collaboration. He has initiated the use of a wiki site to allow the students to communicate easily when working on projects. "I imagine that they mostly get together to plan the projects, but with the wiki, they can also work from separate locations. The idea is to let them all come up with their own ways to collaborate," Cheever says.