Campus orgs. probe scientific niches

While for many Yalies, science might mean test tubes and convoluted organic-chemistry equations, several new organizations on campus are showing students it can also be about cardboard boats, time travel and solar-powered race cars.

Leaders of three student groups — the Engineering Design Team, “Airships” and Team Lux — said their clubs take new spins on science and technology, carving out a niche for creativity and innovation within the Yale science community.

Founded in 2004 by a group of engineering students, the YEDT gives students the chance “to have fun with what they learn in the classroom,” YEDT President Jonathan Hartman ’09 said.

YEDT holds numerous annual design events, which give students a hands-on opportunity to engage in friendly competition, he said.

The group’s largest annual competition is Junk Yale Wars, named after the TV show “Junkyard Wars,” he said. Held in the spring, the event requires students to complete a design challenge using mostly “throw-away” items from around Yale’s campus.

Last year’s challenge was to build a boat that could transport two people across the Payne Whitney Gymnasium swimming pool using cardboard and two rolls of duck tape, Building Events Coordinator Ashish Bakshi ’10 said.

In another one of last year’s design competitions, students created a “tennis ball launcher” — everything from catapults to “medieval-looking” trebuchets, Baskshi said.

“[The club] is just a way to get students some hands-on, seat-of-your-pants design experience,” Hartman said. “I think that its appeal to non-engineers is one of its unique aspects — you don’t need technical expertise to come in and build a boat.”

One of the club’s main activities is generating and supporting student research initiatives that fall outside the range of existing engineering faculty research projects. This year, YEDT organized the Yale Hover Race team, which is creating cars that hover above the ground using turbo jets, and Team Pegasus, which is building an aerial robot from a helicopter.

Team Pegasus coordinator Hartman said the group, officially called the Aerial Robotics Research Group, is currently trying to build a robot in time for Aerial Robotics Competition, an ongoing national competition that ends in 2009.

“It’s really cool to think that we’re undergraduates and at the forefront of robotics research,” he said. “We’re not just re-doing something researchers have done before. This competition has been going on for 17 years and nobody has achieved the goal.”

This may not be such a surprising statistic, considering the competition’s formidable task. Bakshi said entry robots must get from a base station to a target three kilometers away, identify a particular building, retrieve a piece of information from one of its rooms and travel back to the base station — all without human input.

Bakshi said the group is now developing the software needed to fly the aircraft, as well as to install cameras and an intelligent image-recognition system into the robot.

But while the YEDT enjoys a membership totaling over 200 undergraduates and graduate students, attracting members is not as easy for other recently created organizations.

“Airships” — the first science fiction magazine at Yale — is in its second year, but it is still “struggling” to establish itself, Editor-in-Chief Daniel Schwartz ’09 said.

Schwartz said the publication aims to create a niche for science fiction readers to creatively express their interest in the genre. He said he is surprised a similar outlet never existed in the Yale community, considering how many students grew up reading science fiction.

“This is a really broad genre,” he said. “We’re not just limited to intellectual, science-heavy writing. We want this to be fun.”

The organization’s name — which comes from the science fiction concept of a buoyant aircraft lighter than air — reflects this desire to enjoy the creativity and surrealism of science fiction, Schwartz said.

The concept had been thrown around for a few years before Matthew Michaelson ’08 registered “Airships” as an official organization last year, Financial Manager Nana-Aba Nduom ’08 said. She said the publication is collecting submissions but has not yet received enough to publish an issue.

But Schwartz said he is confident that there is a science-fiction following within the student body. The challenge for “Airships” is to tap that interest, he said.

“It’s definitely hard to establish a new writing publication,” Schwartz said. “Most new publications start with a base of writers, which we didn’t have.”

Schwartz said the magazine will focus on fiction but will also dedicate a section to a non-fiction story about a colorful real-life scientific development.

Nduom said the eventual plan is to publish “Airships” at least twice a year, with the first issue released late this year.

While “Airships” struggles to muster support, Team Lux, an older group that is celebrating its 14th anniversary this year, is facing the challenge of rebuilding its membership base after an exodus of dedicated seniors.

Team Lux — originally named to reflect the University’s motto — is dedicated to building solar-powered race cars. Daniel Turner-Evans ’08, who has served as Team Lux’s president for the past two years, said the group is training its members to build an entry for the 2009 Panasonic World Solar Challenge, held in Australia. The competition requires teams to build cars completely powered by solar panels that can travel for eight continuous hours on Australian highways.

Several years ago, the team built a new solar-powered car every two years for the World Solar Challenge, but Turner-Evans said the group did not have the resources or member support to enter this year’s competition.

Turner-Evans said building solar-powered cars centers on basic principles introduced in a physics or engineering classroom, but members typically invest several hours per week in researching beyond basic theory.

“The solar cells themselves are a pretty simple device, but to make them work requires quite a lot of advanced electronic and technical knowledge,” he said. “But we don’t expect anyone to come in with that knowledge.”

In addition, the organization helps inspire people to think about alternative energy forms, Turner-Evans said. The World Solar Challenge was first established as a way to research alternative energy fuel sources, but he said recent findings suggest solar powered cars might not be completely feasible.

“No one really talks about solar-powered cars anymore,” he said, “This has been one of the biggest obstacles since some people are just turned off by this.”

He said it may be more feasible for companies to build stationary solar-power arrays that generate electricity for several vehicles.

But he said the team’s primary purpose is not to generate clean energy but to “mess around” with design and building challenges.

In addition to working on solar cars, the club also undertakes mechantronics projects, one of which is to build a rechargeable battery using body motion.

To date, Team Lux has built four solar cars and participated in six competitions other than the Australian Panasonic Solar Challenge, in three of which it has placed.

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