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What Does It Take to Walk on Water?

Freshman Academy students dive into a challenging assignment to learn basic concepts in engineering and applied sciences.
Newly Paul
December 19, 2008 —

Everyone knows that the Viterbi School's entering freshmen are smart, but are they capable of performing miracles?  

Ryo Chiba, CEBS major, and his team won the competition. Other team members included Eric Hotchkiss, Andrew Berkey, Kyle McCarty, Fan Mond Guo and Sinan Temo.

Hossein Hashemi’s Freshman Academy was — and did.  The students had to find a way to walk on water for their final project.   

They gathered Dec. 1, 2008 in the McDonald’s Olympic swimming pool for their final presentations after spending the second half of the semester designing flotation platforms and devices to achieve a seemingly impossible feat.    

“One of the greatest things about this class is that it helps you make the huge transition from school to college life,” said Freshman Academy coach Rebecca Sekar, a biomedical engineering major who was in the Freshman Academy last year.  “These students are definitely creative.  They put in a lot of time and effort into their projects.”

The rules of the project were straightforward: The knees and the upper body could not touch the water; one length of the 25-meter swimming pool had to be traversed in less than five minutes; if someone fell in the water, they could be assisted by team members to stand up again, but they had to finish the course unassisted.  And no one was allowed to use ready-to-build kits.  

“The Academy is all about helping students ease into engineering and helping them understand what engineering is all about,” said Hashemi, assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Ming Hsieh Department and holder of the Gordon S. Marshall Early Career Chair. “This class helps to get them excited about engineering and applied sciences."

Last year, Hashemi had half of his Freshman Academy walk on water while the other half had to find a way to drop an egg from a building without breaking it.  Some of the students came up with clever options like attaching a parachute to the egg!

“A core part of engineering is to find out what’s wrong with a design and how to fix it,” Hashemi continued.  “All of my students were telling me that on paper their ideas seemed to work, but when they tried testing them in reality, they did not. So I asked them what changes they would make in their projects if they were allowed to do them again. I told them it’s not about failure, but about learning from failures and coming up with a better design next time.”
Dash Krause walks on water using a "trash can shuffle" flotation platform.

In the presentations they gave before starting on their projects, the students had to convince Hashemi that their designs would float. The designs were based on basic physics principles, such as buoyancy.  Each design had enough surface area to make it float, but the next step would have been to calculate stability, and most students hadn’t been trained that far yet, he said.  

They trained in the pool, discovering that what works on paper doesn’t necessarily always work in the water.  But as the final day approached, they modified their designs until they were confident that they could compete.

The winning team had a simple strategy: they kept the design simple, said Kyle McCarty.  “We went to a hardware store and picked up wood and duct tape and set to work.”

Teammate Andrew Berkey added: “We avoided using extra parts that could break. We were told about the project eight weeks ago, but we started thinking about it and came up with the solution just three weeks back. And we’re really happy it worked so well.”
"The two main ideas we needed were adequate surface area to float and something that would propel the machine forward,” said Ryo Chiba, another of the five-member winning team. “We tried two other models before this, one with a spring system at the bottom, but that was too hard, so we did not use that. We tested our model in the reflecting pool outside Leavey Library before getting it here.”
Alexander Dashiel "Dash" Krause, left, AE major, and Cameron Colin Wylie, CHPE major.

Dash Krause, who was on the “trash can shuffle” team, explained his group’s strategy:

“We thought shuffling would be the easiest way to get across. So we went to Home Depot and got these trash cans, which we thought would displace most of the water,” he said. “I made it halfway across the pool and then my foot went through the bottom of the can. When we tried it in the reflecting pool at Leavey, it had worked.”
Added Warren Gishnor:  “After it broke midway [into the race], we made a quick fix solution to fix the broken can by tying it up with wires. We fixed it in the middle of the pool because we wanted to finish the race.”

The students were graded on creativity, novelty, successful demonstration (completing at least one lap of the 25-meter pool), presentation, approach and scientific/engineering principles behind the solution. In addition to the team that won, there were two other “semi-workable” solutions, Hashemi said.
But the most important part of the Academy was to engage the students in engineering.  “And the only way this class will make sense is if we encourage creativity,” Hashemi added.  “That’s why we come up with open-ended projects, which students work on independently.”