St. Olaf College | News

Students engineer new product designs in physics practicum

Hanieh Nejadriahi ’14 uses a drill press to work on a project as part of the new Engineering Design Practicum course offered this Interim.

A typical physics problem set has right answers and wrong answers.

This was not the case for the assignment given to St. Olaf College students involved in the new Engineering Design Practicum course offered this Interim.

These students spent the month working on projects assigned to them by two businesses: SageGlass and JonnyPops. Splitting into two teams, the students worked together to create an engineering design that the companies will be able to incorporate into their work.

The course, led by Associate Professor of Physics Jason Engbrecht, aims to give students the opportunity to work on real-world physics and engineering problems and emphasizes hands-on work, prototyping, and organizational skills.

“It’s an applied class that gives students a feel for how their skills can transition into the working world,” says Engbrecht, who chose which projects the students would be working on for the month.

The team working for JonnyPops, a frozen pops company started by four St. Olaf students, used their physics acumen to help the business develop a way to move popsicle sticks from their original box to the slots of the tray that organizes them in the batch manufacturing process. Currently, this job is done by hand, but the team aimed to automate the system to create a quicker, cheaper option for JonnyPops as the business expands.

David Anderson ’15 (left) and Brady Lambert ’14 bring their product designs to life as part of a new physics practicum that aims to give students the opportunity to work on real-world physics and engineering problems.

The task was challenging because the product must be produced in accordance with exacting industry standards.

“We needed to find ways of quickly discovering which techniques worked, and, more importantly, which ones didn’t,” says group member Jared Brown ’15. “That being said, the most exciting part of the project was realizing when something worked and knowing that you were on the right path (or at least one of many possible correct ones) to a solution. Perhaps even more than that, however, was watching the evolution of our prototypes. Even weeks into the process, the shape of the final product was constantly changing.”

Those working for SageGlass, a company that produces electronically tintable glass using sustainable glazing, designed an instrument that will measure the resistance for a coating that is applied to certain Sage window panes that can be tinted by turning a dial.

“Basically the panes they make are like sunglasses for the building that you can turn on and off,” says team member Phillip Maple ’14. “This cool effect is created by using very thin coatings of different materials on the glass. The tricky part about this measurement is that we needed to take it inside a vacuum chamber, which added a lot of unseen complications to our design.”

Each group presented their designs to their respective companies, and both businesses were excited by what the St. Olaf students produced.

“The class brings a ‘real world’ feel both because of the very real problems that we are trying to solve and the group setting that we work in,” says Christian Hall ’14, who worked with SageGlass. “As most of the physics students in the class intend on going into the engineering field, the course provides a great opportunity to improve communication in the lens of engineering.”