June 10, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

The third of six KEEN Design Challenges asked engineers to photograph the roof of Dana Engineering Building from the Science Quad.

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It was a Friday night, and some 25 Bucknell University students were trying their hardest to cool canned sodas from lukewarm to frosty cold.

The students were participants in the first of six Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) Design Challenges organized by the College of Engineering.

Some teams packed containers with ice and salt, while others toyed with CO2 canisters. One developed an elegant solution that involved pouring the soda through a copper tube that coiled its way through supercooled antifreeze — a solution that worked a little too perfectly.

"They actually froze the soda in the copper tube because they cooled it down too much," said David Cipoletti, a professor of mechanical engineering and one of the challenge's organizers.

But even in failure, there were lessons for the young engineers.

"They had a great conceptual design that would have knocked the pants off of everybody had they just taken the one extra step to calculate the performance of their design," said Eric Kennedy, a professor of biomedical engineering and another of the challenge organizers. "They basically did all of the design work but then forgot that they were engineers for a few hours. They learned a really valuable lesson, outside of class, that will stick with them forever."

Funded in part by a more-than-$1-million grant from The Kern Family Foundation, the Design Challenge competitions aim to foster an entrepreneurial mindset and an understanding of consumer demands in engineering students. With help from other College of Engineering and School of Management educators, Cipoletti, Kennedy, Professor of Mechanical Engineering Nate Siegel and KEEN Program Coordinator Erin Singleton hosted six competitions during the fall 2013 and spring semesters. Students worked in teams of two to four, and were required to include students from at least two majors. The next five competitions challenged participants to:

  • Build a tabletop trash compactor for a dorm room,
  • Photograph targets on the roof of Dana Engineering Building from the Science Quad,
  • Using only items purchased during a one-hour craft store shopping spree, build a vehicle to traverse a suspended fishing line as many times as possible,
  • Design and pitch a product to be sold to students at the University bookstore,
  • Design and pitch a project for the Bucknell Green Fund.

Participants were not given the full challenge until the night before each competition, and then had only one to three days to complete their product or pitch.

Kennedy said the nature of the challenges encourages students to be less cautious in approaching their designs, while the accelerated schedules and limited resources demand outside-the-box thinking.

"In a course, if they get to the due date and their design just doesn't work at all, then their grade is on the line, so they're more inclined to pick a safer solution," Kennedy said. "If they fail this, the worst thing that happens is that they don't win a prize."

While some competitions focused more heavily on design than on practical applications — few real-world applications exist for a car that traverses a fishing line — the organizers also planned two pitch competitions. Modeled on the Bucknell Small Business Development Center's Business Pitch Competition, the challenges demanded participants design but not build a product, then create a comprehensive plan to manufacture, market and sell the device.

"If you are an engineer who's cognizant of what your customer wants, then you can design something that better suits their needs initially, rather than having to go through a lot of iterations," Siegel said, explaining the value of the contests. "It's good for them to think about what that end market is, and what that end market really wants from their product, and then design to that."

Ward Prescott, a rising sophomore who took part in three of the challenges and won the first, said the business aspect of the competitions was the most valuable for him, as it forced him to think about his work differently.

"The business elements of the competitions made me think about my designs in ways that I never did as an engineer," Prescott said. "Before I would design anything, I had to think, 'Would someone buy this,' which drastically changed the final design. As an engineer I might just throw things together until it works, regardless of cost or aesthetic."

Students will have six more chances to test their design chops at Design Challenges next year, with funding from the KEEN grant continuing through 2015–16, and the organizers said they hope to make the competitions a permanent fixture.

This summer, 18 rising sophomores and juniors will also have an opportunity to further their technical skills at the first-ever Bucknell Fabrication Workshop, a weeklong immersive experience that is also supported by the KEEN grant. Like the Design Challenges, the Aug. 20–26 workshop aims to inspire innovation through out-of-the-classroom learning.

"Some of them are going to become hooked on some of the things we show them, and that's going to initiate continued learning," Siegel said. "We'll show them how to use a laser cutter, and I will be surprised if we don't have five people who think the laser cutter is about the best thing ever invented — or the 3D printer, or woodworking. And everything that we show them how to use is something they can get their hands on when they're done."