Budding engineers test their ingenuity in the annual RecPlex race.

Budding engineers test their ingenuity in the annual RecPlex race.

School of Engineering (SOE) Associate Dean Ryan Munden, PhD, tells his students, “As an engineer, you very well may have another person’s life in your hands. Say you design an airbag sensor — it’s not okay to just say ‘I tried hard.’ It has to work. Period. So, there has to be a time where performance matters.”

And the time where it really does matter is during the annual “Walk-on-Water” competition. Each fall, teams of students, mostly first-years and some sophomores, put their “EG31 Fundamentals of Engineering” course skills to the test with kinetic, project-based design work to build a contraption that must “walk on water” or rather, align with engineering principles to get them efficiently across the RecPlex’s 8-lane, 25-meter pool in record time, for a grade.

“It is a high-stakes event. [The students] have to make it across the pool or they don’t pass. It’s worth 20 percent of their grade,” said Dr. Munden, who helped to redesign the course and introduced the competition five years ago.

Sound harsh? Perhaps a bit. But, Dr. Munden explained that it’s a tried and tested project, and that students have plenty of time to develop their ideas and work out details. When the project first started in 2012, there were 55 student participants from two course sections. Today, there are more than 80 student participants from four course sections.

Emmett Godfrey ’20, a member of this year’s winning team, “A Leg Up,” said the project was “really interesting” and that, in the end, it helped the entire first-year engineering class bond.

“You are forced to work in a team environment and it was a great introduction to what working on a team in real life would be like,” Godfrey said.

The “A Leg Up” team’s winning contraption made it across the pool in 25.3 seconds. The team consisted of Godfrey and his classmates Ryan Attonito ’20, John Callanan ’20, Robert Gonfiantini ’20, Eric Jiang ’20 and Ryan Morais ’20.

All participating teams had a budget cap of $100 for building the machines. They had to acquire all the materials themselves and were encouraged to use spare, unused and recycled materials.

“We worked some late nights,” said Callanan, who is Godfrey’s roommate and helped find the old bicycle frame that became the basis of the design. “When we tested our project before the competition, it was make or break. We let out a huge sigh of relief when it made it across.”
Callanan continued, in laymen’s terms, “Basically we stripped down a bike to its chain, the pedals and the frame, but left the back wheel. Then, we strapped it to a pontoon on either side.”

Team “A Leg Up” also installed paddles on both sides of the bike, to scoop water as it moved. And something that set their design apart was attaching 12 smaller paddles to the metal frame of the back wheel of the bike, which meant their design had “two methods of propulsion.”
Each team also had to name one machine operator who knows how to swim. The pilot for “A Leg Up” was Godfrey.

“When you got on [your contraption] in the first heat, the pressure was on. It was for all the marbles and I looked down the pool and saw all the other engineers lined up,” Godfrey said. But, during the race he could tell he was ahead and this kept his spirits up.

“My feet hurt a lot afterwards because the pedals were spikey,” he said about one post-race design element he would adjust, if there were ‘a next time.’

While making it across the pool is essential to passing the project or “meeting the design goal” it’s not where the assignment ends for the students.

“They have to actually point out how they used all of the elements of the engineering design cycle — project management and problem solving — in a team presentation to the class,” Dr. Munden said. “It asks them to reflect as a team on how they did their work.”

Moving “beyond the textbook” is what really attracts students to the project, Dr. Munden continued. After the presentations, Dr. Munden schedules team meetings where he offers detailed feedback.

“It’s putting it all into action that counts for post-graduation work. All of our students go through the machine shop,” Dr. Munden said. “No matter what field of engineering they end up in, they have to know how things are made and how to be kind to technicians. It’s tricky to make things, especially if they’re going to be things that change the world.” ●F