Montana State University

Students engineer their futures

December 8, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

Montana State University mechanical engineering student Mitch Cowen of Big Timber demonstrates a riding vacuum cleaner he built with fellow students Trey Riddle of Louisville, Ky., and Ross Smith of Gloucester, Mass., during MSU's fall semester Engineering Design Fair. (MSU photo by Jay Thane.)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Riding vacuum cleaners, maze-navigating robots, motorized skateboards, sensors for satellites, electronic gaming software, heat exchangers for ventilation systems and a device for helping stroke patients regain use of a paralyzed hand were on display Thursday at Montana State University's annual fall-semester Engineering Design Fair.

Taking up an entire ballroom in the university's Student Union Building, the fair looked like a slightly awry research and development laboratory for Santa's workshop. There was a Christmas tree in one corner, wreaths around the wall clocks, plates of cookies and refreshments and table after table of strange contraptions, some of which looked a little scary.

"You put your fingers in here and then we strap your forearm down," said Andrew Baldwin, a mechanical engineering student from Corvallis, Ore., explaining a finger-force measurement device that he built with fellow mechanical engineering students Nick Doherty of Missoula and Jacob Birrenkott of Rapid City, S.D.

Despite its black Velcro straps, plethora of machined metal parts, and its finger loops connected black-cabled sensors, the device had a humane purpose.

"It can be used to determine if a given physical therapy is helping a stroke victim regain use of their paralyzed hand," Doherty said.

The device can accurately measure the amount of force that fingers exert from zero to five pounds, something that may otherwise be difficult to observe with a naked eye or sense by holding a patient's hand.

Aside from the specific design challenges, the team learned a few lessons they can apply to any project. Though their design looked great on paper, when they actually built it they found a few surprises, such as the complexity of movement in a human finger.

"Fingers don't move in a perfect arc," Baldwin said.

"When you think it's designed, you'll have to design it one more time," Doherty said.

Part of students' graduation requirements, the projects - many funded by private entrepreneurs - are intended to give students real-life experience working in teams, meeting deadlines and staying on budget. The projects also show them the difference between designing something and building it.

"We were up until 1:30 or 2 a.m. every night this week putting it together," said mechanical engineering student Mitch Cowen of a riding vacuum. Cowen, of Big Timber, built the vacuum with fellow students Trey Riddle of Louisville, Ky., and Ross Smith of Gloucester, Mass.

"Seventy-five percent of the parts arrived in the last two weeks," Cowen said.

Despite doing the final assembly just 30 minutes before the fair opened, the team's project was a success, sucking up crushed cookies and sand from a carpet. A Billings entrepreneur who already has early patent protection on the design funded their project.

"I really learned a lot about working with people and personalities," Smith said. "We had to learn to not take things personally, that this was about an engineering problem, not about us."

At the other end of the ballroom four students showed off a maze-navigating robot with infrared eyes and a Wi-Fi linked brain. Their team included electrical engineers Andrew Edwards of Havre; James Loo of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Daniel Colson of Missoula and computer engineering student Ali Alniemi of Bozeman.

"You have to play on peoples' strengths on a project like this," Edwards said. "If one person tries to be involved in everything, you'll waste time."

Loo said the project gave him some ammunition for getting his career started.

"I've had so many job interviews where I'm asked about my communication and leadership skills, about my ability to work with a team and make quick decisions," he said. "This project helped me with those things."

Contact: Vic Cundy, MSU professor of mechanical engineering,, (406) 994-7204.