Posted May 9, 2008 in Man on the Streets

It’s Project Day at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont and a couple hundred people are crammed into a large room in Linde Activities Center, cornering future scientists and engineers for explanations about water-based muon detectors and two-phased flows in OBIGGS distribution systems. It’s a real treat to see the kids jump out of their shoes to explain their work.

Project Day is a team research project that pairs Mudd seniors with corporate America to work on solutions for some of the country’s most pressing technological problems. It’s been a school institution since the first organized project in 1973 for Bell and Howell analyzed scintillation phenomena in rear-screen projectors (and we all know what a conundrum that was). It’s been a desert rave ever since–a literal Coachella for science nerds– and this year had 37 presentations spread out over a full afternoon.

There’s no way to see them all, so Project Day kicks off with all the teams assembling in Linde in front of informational posters to answer questions and expound on algorithms like they were wayward celebrities in disgrace. A perky lad named Max Gibiansky did his best to make intelligible how an electron sensor bound for Jupiter could measure magnetic fields. It all sped past me at warp speed, except the part about smashing particles, which sounded like a real gas. Unfortunately, Max sheepishly admitted they didn’t get to smash any actual particles, the cost of a real satellite a bit much for sponsor Southwest Research Institute to pop for. Still, the project was successful and when NASA launches its satellite in 2011, Max and his team’s sensor will be soaring with it.

Some projects were a bit more moron friendly, like AeroVironment Inc.’s request for a computer chip to measure meteorological data. I didn’t care about the science, I wanted to watch the bitchin’ model plane the team built fly around the room. Team member Kai Mayeda seemed reluctant to sign off on that, especially since a test flight earlier that morning got lost in the clouds and the better part of an hour was spent trying to track it down. The revelation that Harvey Mudd has its own wind tunnel impressed me no end. It sounded like a nice way to cure a hangover. "Sure," the students told me, "if you can handle a 100-MPH gust!"

Later came the expanded presentations. I alternated concepts I was remotely familiar with, like RealNetworks search for a live video streaming program that wouldn’t cost them $60 million in bandwidth a month, with problem projects that were just as boring as they sounded, like Orthodyne’s Develop & Validate a Mathematical Model of a Wire Bonder Structure for Use in the Development of Future Platforms. Not that the team didn’t approach the project with gusto. I noticed that, intended or not, they sprinkled their exhibit with phrases like "isolation mount testing," "tap test," and "stiffness and dampness characteristics," which reminded me of a crazy night I once had at Spearmint Rhino. Apparently I was the only one with my mind in the gutter because after their 20-minute presentation, the dozen or so audience members just looked up with their eyes glazed over until the team’s advisor generously asked a polite question. (Even still, it’s a cinch that Orthodyne was mighty happy with the result)

The true winners of the day were 9-Fish Surfboards. They compelled their team to develop an eco-friendly surfboard for the beginner surfer set. Not only did the presentation have real live surfboards to look at, the team got to do things like toss bowling balls off rooftops to test durability, not to mention testing the boards in the water themselves. Also, at one point they threw out a concept called "Corona discharge" which, since it was the day after Cinco De Mayo, made me realize there truly was sly humor involved in science, although in this case, it went over the heads of everybody except me. Since the board they designed was called "Baked Ahi" I asked them of the feasibility of making an eco-friendly model that was also edible. Team member Paula Lipka responded that would be some future team’s problem. As it was, the surfboard they invented was so successful they have already applied for a provisional patent. Junior will be lugging one around before these kids are out of grad school.

In the end, the most striking thing about Project Day is how corporations manage to utilize essentially free student labor to solve their problems and, in return, the students get a big fat stamp on their resume that says "hire me now"! It’s a win-win that HMC has nurtured for almost 40 years and demonstrates the benefit of having a child with advanced scientific aptitude–they will be worth their weight in algorithms.


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