UM students take to the air with hovercraft project -- Gazette.Net


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Huddling over two-foot boards of pink foam, freshmen engineering students gathered in the University of Maryland, College Park’s engineering building Thursday and made adjustments on the home-made hovercrafts they’ve spent months designing, building and programming.

They tweaked wires, adjusted fans and edited code, hoping their finished product would work the way they’d planned.

In its sixth year, the 330 students of ENES 100 — a required course for all freshmen engineering majors — have been building 33 hovercrafts in teams of 10 since the semester started in January. Thursday’s competition was a sort of final exam though for bragging rights instead of grades, said professors at the university’s A. James Clark School of Engineering.

Professors and students say the project is changing the way young engineers are learning about their field.

Emily Zimovan, an aerospace engineering major from South Carolina, was on a team of 10 students who built a hopping hovercraft, which moved around the rectangular enclosure toward a metal cylinder the hovercraft had to retrieve.

“We had to design everything ourselves and build everything ourselves and pay for everything ourselves,” said Zimovan, 18. “It was a lot of trial and error, and a lot of creativity.”

Zimovan’s team’s hovercraft — dubbed Prestige Worldwide — moved on a plastic bag-like bottom, which inflated when the hovercraft turned on. The vessel was propelled by small fans attached to the top that were controlled by the various sensors that picked up the hovercraft’s location based on a programmed grid. Each team had a $350 budget.

Kevin Calabro, who was part of the faculty team that started the project in the Fall of 2006, said the project helps students on many levels.

The project requires basic knowledge of several different kinds of engineering, like computer engineering to program the autonomous vessels, robotics to design a method for picking up the payload and electrical engineering to wire the hovercraft.

“We chose the hovercraft project because it’s a very challenging one,” Calabro said. “Some semesters, almost no teams meet all the requirements in the allotted time. But they love the challenge.” This year, about 20 percent met the deadlines, he said.

Calabro credits the project for raising the school’s retention rate. In 2005, he said, the school was losing about 20 percent of students after the first year, and more than 30 percent of students after two years. Now, the school only loses about 10 percent after one year, and 20 percent after two years.

“When they do this project, they realize, ‘Oh I have to learn something to be able to do something hands-on,” Calabro said.

Professor Evandro Valente, who taught two course sections this semester, said there comes a moment when students start to think of the hovercrafts as “their babies” and stay in the classroom to work on their projects.

Another aspect of the project is the need to work in teams, a prospect Valente said is important to educating successful engineers.

“The ability to work in a team is a critical part of what engineering is about, even with all the math skills they have,” Valente said. “Learning to work as a team as freshmen allows them to know if engineering is right for them.”

hnunn@gazette.net