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April 8, 2010
By John Trent
The annual Engineers Day provided many moments of entertainment and wonder for dozens of high school students who converged upon the University of Nevada, Reno, campus on Tuesday, April 6.
But perhaps the defining moment occurred during a demonstration of motors, control systems and fiber optics by College of Engineering undergraduates in the college’s Electronics Demonstration Lab.
Andrew Jurado, a senior from Reno majoring in electrical engineering, paused for a moment as he showed a group of students from the Church Academy of Reno how a Van De Graff Generator works. (What’s a Van De Graff Generator? Think metallic, roundish, space age-looking generator that through electrical current can lift one’s hair to resemble a disheveled, static-y Albert Einstein.).
“You know,” Jurado said, “if you learn engineering, you can learn to do just about anything.”
So it was throughout the series of presentations and demonstrations held during the popular event, which was sponsored by the College of Engineering and the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.
Engineers Day drew high schools from rural and western Nevada, as well as Eastern California.
“It was neat,” said Kenneth Mickey, a 16-year-old Church Academy student who plans on attending Nevada upon graduation. “There was a whole lot more to do with engineering than I had ever thought about.”
Robert Franchini, a senior about to graduate from the Church Academy, agreed: “The tour showed how fun engineering can be.”
During their tour, Mickey and Franchini saw the different faces of engineering, from mining engineering techniques to rock mechanics to robotics and artificial intelligence work through computer science and engineering, to large-scale structure testing done by students in civil engineering.
The Robotics Research Lab offered up a compelling view of the future when, Ph.D. student Richard Kelley explained, “robots will move out of the factories where they help build cars, and into our homes and offices. To do that, they have to have social intelligence. We’re here to help smooth out that process.”
Kelley carefully explained the difference between computer science and engineering and mechanical engineering by showing the students a robot named “Marie.”
“This is a French robot,” Kelley said, his face completely deadpan. “To work on Marie, you have to remove her head. That’s why her full name is Marie Antoinette.”
More seriously, Kelley said after drawing a good round of laughter from the visiting students, “What we do is focus on the programming, the building and design of A.I. The mechanical engineers build the body, and we build the mind.”
Much of the work done in the lab, Kelley said, was through Defense Department grants, with a major emphasis placed on the social sciences, game theory and even economics.
“We are creating robots that can use knowledge they learn rather than what they are programmed with,” Kelley said.
The robots were a big hit with the students.
“That was really neat,” Mickey said afterward.
In the Electronics Demonstration Lab, Jurado and his fellow senior electrical engineering major, Matt Foster, explained that although their studies and research are challenging and strenuous, there is also a sense of enjoyment.
They pulled out a Frisbee with complex circuitry that had been specifically designed by students for the sport Ultimate Frisbee. Called “The Ultimate Ref,” the implement had the capacity to keep score and to keep track of tosses, among other things.
“We’re playing all the time,” Foster said of how he views his studies.
In the large-scale structures lab, civil engineering student Jorge Gonzalez discussed the lab’s international reach.
“We have a full-scale test of a curved bridge coming up in the next few days,” he said. “We have professors who work all over the country and the world. We’ve had three professors from here who have recently traveled to Chile and Haiti to help with the understanding of how those earthquakes affected the buildings there.”
Taking the students deep into the bowels of the large-scale structures lab, Gonzalez showed the pride of all civil engineering students, the concrete canoe. The canoe, built with specially designed, lightweight, floatable concrete, is annually among the best in the country. The College of Engineering’s canoe placed fifth in the National Concrete Canoe Competition in 2009, and won the national championship in 2008.
“We have about 20 students on the team,” Gonzalez explained. “It’s a full project. It’s six months of preparation and work.”
Then Gonzalez smiled, and, like the students who had presented before him, aptly captured the theme of the day.
“It’s hard work, but also a lot of fun,” he said. “You learn so much from engineering.”