The challenge was simple – can you cross the Rice University Recreation Center pool without getting wet? Seven teams answered the call at the first RCEL Splashdown Engineering Design Competition on March 31.
Building on the success of RCEL’s Engineering Liftoff, an annual fall orientation event for new students, Faculty Director Kaz Karwowski saw an opportunity to host a recruiting event, and for RCEL Student Leadership to take charge.
“I wanted to give them an opportunity to decide what this event should be,” said Karwowski. “We like to pull in our students for help in recruiting new students to the program, and this was an opportunity for them to develop a fun recruiting event from start to finish.”
Splashdown was coordinated by the Student Engagement Committee – Patrick Garr (senior, CHEM); and Anna Cowan (junior, CAAM).
“Patrick and I wanted to host an event that was similar to Liftoff, but that allowed for more creativity and ingenuity,” said Cowan. “Multiple RCEL students had done some kind of cardboard boat-building challenge in high school, so we decided to run with this idea and see how we could shape it into a Rice and RCEL event. People were really excited and enthusiastic about the potential of a one-day cardboard boat competition, and I’m so happy we were able to design an event that emphasized team work, innovation, and fun!”
Playing off the space theme of Liftoff, the competition was named “Splashdown,” the term for the landing of a space vehicle in a body of water. A successful splashdown signifies the ultimate test of an engineering design and its implementation.
Garr and Cowan created the exercise and scoring criteria from scratch, building on the Liftoff exercise and Engineering Leadership Labs (ELLs) offered in RCEL curriculum. RCEL faculty David Van Kleeck and Tom Phalen, both Professors in the Practice, reviewed their work and offered suggestions. For logistics, Garr and Cowan worked with RCEL Marketing and Events Specialist Amanda Prestia to design and implement the complete event, from registration, exercise, and catering, to the race itself; they even held a test run to make sure the exercise was feasible in the given time period.
The day of the completion, teams gathered at the outdoor basketball courts and spent three hours building their crafts, using only provided cardboard boxes and duct tape. During the lunch break, teams discussed with RCEL Certificate student coaches what leadership and management techniques they could implement to improve their build process.
At 3:00p.m., all teams were positioned with their cardboard creations at the starting line along the edge of Rice’s competition pool. Although the crafts varied widely in terms of design elements and size, each transported one team member over the width of the pool at least once before sinking.
“We had more successful crafts than I thought we would,” said Karwowski, laughing. “It’s a testament to engineering students at Rice. They knew the task to be done, and they know how to build things that work.”
After the initial race, most of the crafts were still pool-worthy and everyone was having too much fun to quit, so a secondary race was initiated: how many people could the teams fit in their boats and still cross the pool?
This did not go as well.
“Of all the teams, only one boat was able to successfully move four people across the pool,” said Karwowski. “The initial designs weren’t meant to meet this challenge, but it was a lot of fun to watch nearly all the students getting wet trying.”
After all the soggy team members and their even soggier crafts were safely removed from the water, Karwowski led the group in a debrief, discussing what went well in their design process and race strategy, and what could be improved.
“The debrief is a huge part of RCEL curriculum and training,” explained Karwowski. “We wanted to give them a taste of an Engineering Leadership Lab, with the debrief to share lessons learned and figure out how to improve.”
Given the success of the event, and the excitement it stirred in the participants and coaches, the cardboard boat-race will now be an annual competition.
“I thought Splashdown was a success!” said Cowan. “The students who attended were challenged and had a great time racing in the pool. We received very positive feedback that, in addition to the coaches’ observations, will allow us to host an even better Splashdown next year!”