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Engineering Students Savor Design Assignment

May 27, 2004

Engineers are usually thought of as something akin to accountants. Detailed numbers crunchers. That description certainly didn’t fit the students taking an introductory engineering course at The University of Texas at Arlington. Creative thinkers and problem solvers was more accurate.

The students had been given an end-of-course assignment to design, build and race toy cars made entirely of edible materials. The challenge was intended to give freshmen engineering students some early, hands-on experiences in research and development. Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering Bonnie Boardman, who conducts the course with Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Associate Dean of Engineering for Academic Affairs Lynn Peterson, was enthusiastic about the challenge. “I couldn't wait to see what the students came up with. People don't often think of engineers as being particularly creative, but all inspired designs have a creative component.”

Teams of four students had to agree on a design, select the materials and construct their cars. The materials could be either raw or cooked, but must be edible by humans and cost less than $10. The cars could have dimensions no larger than four inches wide, four inches tall and 12 inches long and operate on three or four rotating wheels.

The 60 resulting creations were constructed of a cornucopia of foodstuffs. Car bodies of hot dog buns, cheese (Swiss and cheddar), cucumbers, a taco shell, potatoes (sweet and Idaho), a yucca root, baguettes and zucchini. Wheels of summer sausage, Life Savers, rice cakes, Ritz crackers, carrots and ice cream cookies (not a good idea). Axles of peppermint sticks, toothpicks, pretzels, bread sticks and Slim Jims (self lubricating).

Many of the cars had added features such as gummy bear drivers, gumdrop hubcaps, candy letters and numbers, and pretzel steering wheels. These were assets, as points were given for the number of edible parts in addition to creativity, size requirements (some nibbling allowed to achieve desired results) and performance on the ramp.

Ah, yes, the ramp. The most destructive, if not the most difficult, part of the competition. Each car had to withstand three runs down a 10-foot ramp with a 30-degree incline. One team member was stationed at the bottom of the ramp to catch the car as it ended each run. Some runs were more successful than others. The room was repeatedly filled with cheers, groans and laughter as cars either spun wildly, failed to move, lost wheels, disintegrated at the bottom of the ramp or successfully completed the run.