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Baby birds, complex machines, lasers vie for Picnic Day visitors’ attention

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April 16, 2011 | Leave Comment

Twins Matt and Brian Hecomovich, 3, of Santa Clara practice their drumming techniques as they wait for the Cal Aggie Marching Band-uh to lead the Picnic Day Parade. Their mother is a Band-uh alum. Wayne Tilcock/Enterprise photo

It’s not the Doxie Derby, the Battle of the Bands or the Chemistry Magic Show, yet, but the members of Theta Tau like to imagine the Rube Goldberg Machine Competition will someday be a top draw at Picnic Day.

They’re engineers, after all. They build things.

“We just want people to know that engineering is not all math and physics,” said the event’s co-chair, Fred Padron, a third-year civil engineering major from Sunnyvale. “There’s a lot more creativity and innovation.”

With more than 200 events and displays competing for attention at UCD’s 97th annual open house, those truest to the spirit of Saturday’s event — like a laser maze and the chance to see chicks hatching, up close — combined a little science with a lot of fun.

Moving pieces

Rube Goldberg machines, complicated contraptions that accomplish a simple task, are enjoying something of a resurgence. The band OK Go’s video featuring one elaborate machine has topped 26 million hits on YouTube.

The machines in the third annual competition at Ghausi Hall were required to take at least 15 steps to water a plant in less than 90 seconds.

Teams came from UCD, Davis High School and the upstart Sierra College Physics and Engineering Club, which built an elaborate setup with orange trees, Hollywood and the Golden Gate Bridge.

It was complicated. Very complicated.

Better, then, to let team member Sol Brocker, who attends Sierra and is a fourth-year Cal Poly San Luis Obispo engineering major, explain:

“So, it starts with a golf ball which rolls through the tubes before hitting the wagon wheel. After hitting the wagon wheel, it goes down and sits in this little box and waits there, ’cause there’s a nail that blocks it. And then those wagon wheels roll onto a ramp, which trips the hammer, which pulls a string, which lets the nail out, which lets the ball through.

“That trips a switch that activates the train. And then the train rolls across and hits another switch, which turns on the fan next to the cheese wheel, which blows the cheese wheel down to hit the dominoes. The dominoes topple and they hit another switch, which trips a solenoid at the bridge, which causes the bridge to collapse, which trips another switch, which trips a solenoid over by the garage, which causes the garage to open.

“There’s a windup car that comes out, which pulls a nail, which activates the plane, and the plane goes down and it hits that wire. That trips a mouse trap.

“The mouse trap pulls out a nail in that two-liter bottle. It empties the liquid into a bottle on a lever. That pivots after it pulls up, and that sets off another mouse trap, which trips the magnet on the tethered golf ball, which un-tethers, and that pulls another magnet, which causes the other golf ball to un-tether, which sets off another mouse trap. That pulls the cork out of a siphon, which causes the water to go into the canal which waters the plant.”

Added Brocker, “We put quite a bit of time into it.”

A glowing maze

Across the street, inside a darkened Kemper Hall conference room, visitors stepped over and crawled under a thin green laser beam. The maze was the work of UCD’s Optics Club, which gave away a full allotment of 240 tickets in about 45 minutes.

Most visitors are fixated on the glowing beam itself and their chance to make like a secret agent or thief.

“They try to crawl through like a superhero — but they don’t really accomplish it like a superhero,” said William Yee, a fifth-year biomedical engineering major from Newark who co-chairs the club.

Some do take the time to ask club members more about how it works.

Yee explains it this way: An ordinary MP3 player send a sound wave into a current source, which modulates it into light wave; a laser diode sends the beam bouncing off a series of mirrors, crisscrossing a pathway 12 times, to a focusing lens; from there it hits a photo diode; the information then travels through a pre-amplifier, amplifier and finally through speakers to be played as music.

Lily Feng, a third-year pharmaceutical chemistry major from San Francisco, and Jordan Lay, a third-year mechanical and aerospace engineering major from Oakland, were able to snag tickets for the first time in three Picnic Days.

“I think I made it all the way through,” Feng said. “I never got to do it before like in the movies.”

The maze is popular enough to grow, but the club, just a half-dozen strong, is limited by its numbers and what it can manage to find in equipment, the most expensive piece of which, the current source, costs about $500.

Yee, who will pursue his master’s degree at San Jose State University, hopes to build medical devices. His senior project is building his own ophthalmoscope: an instrument used for examining retinas and other parts of the eye.

Other club members study astronomy, work for a company that builds and tests lasers, or study biophotonics, where light and biology come together.

Yee said he hoped the maze made an impression on visitors, especially younger ones.

“We just want them to be aware of what optics are, because in high school they usually don’t teach that,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll be excited about coming to college and will go into optics, physics or engineering.”

Peeping at new life

Not far away, in Meyer Hall, visitors lined up to see chicks freeing themselves from their shells in incubators and, one room away, to hold two-day-old chickens in cupped hands.

Standing before a tub with yellow layers and black silkie mixes, some of the birds nodding off before a warm light, Melissa Tauber said having the chance to hold a chick was a great opportunity for children.

“Seeing an animal up close instead of just in a picture gets them to open their minds to the research we do and caring for their own animals,” said the fourth-year animal science major from San Francisco specializing in animal behavior.

“Handling animals like this when I was little certainly pushed me in this direction.”

Adults lined up for the chance to hold a chick, too, including Katherine Fife, 30, of San Francisco. Her husband, Paul, a 1980 UCD graduate, and their English bulldog, Tyson, waited outside.

Fife beamed after holding one of the baby birds.

“I have always wanted backyard chickens,” she said. “In our wedding vows, he said I could keep chicks inside as long as they fit in the palm of my hand. So I want to snatch these chicks and come home with them.

“This is my favorite day of the year.”

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8046.

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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