July 26, 2010

A Robotic Punxsutawney Phil? Students Design Shadow-Detection Device

Franklin Stinner '11; Chris Nadovich, lab director of electrical and computer engineering; and Justin Bunnell '11 work on their junior design project--an electronic device that detects shadows.

Chris Nadovich was reading the news online last January when a letter from Gemma Vaughan of the animal rights group PETA caught his eye. Saying it was cruel to expose the most famous prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil, to screaming crowds and the blinding flash of cameras each Ground Hog Day, Vaughan suggested an animatronic doppelganger.

There was just one problem. How would it detect its shadow?

It was a question, Nadovich, as lab director for electrical and computer engineering, used as the basis for last semester’s junior design project. Could they build an electronic device that detects shadows? There was only one caveat: No computers, just old-fashioned circuits and wires.

“Each project is supposed to have technical constraints and social implications,” Nadovich says. “This was one that fit both agendas.”

It also captured the imagination of the class and was timely, considering the recent rabble over the rodent.

“We weren’t taking sides,” he says. “Someone asked for technology to solve a problem and we wanted to see if it could be done.”

The 10 students were divided into teams of two and tasked with building a contraption that would register the silhouette of an object. Four months later, all five teams succeeded.

“The biggest challenge was doing everything in analog,” says Frank Stinner ’11 (Nazareth, Pa.), who partnered with Justin Bunnell ’11 (Branford, Connecticut).“It made us think a little more about problem solving.”

“It was math with circuits,” adds Bunnell.

After completing their projects, students then had to debate the ethicality of using a live ground hog to predict the vagaries of weather.

“Sometimes it got acrimonious,” says Nadovich, who required that students use sourced material and not emotion when defending their conclusions.

Stinner and Bunnell cited an editorial written by William Deeley, president of the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, to support their contention that Pennsylvania’s hairiest weatherman should not be replaced by a robot.

“He said Phil is better treated than the average child in Pennsylvania,” Bunnell says.

As for the project, both Stinner and Bunnell predict they’ll remember it long into next season.

posted in Academic News, Collaborative, High-Impact Learning, Engineering, News and Features, Parents & Families, Students

tagged with