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For their senior design project, mechanical engineering senior Ursula Uys and her classmates Tory Chun and Jessica Scott decided to use science to inspire and excite youngsters to learn about electricity and sustainability.
The Energy Bike would show students how to create their own energy and observe how much power they can generate by supplying different outputs. The biggest challenge for the engineering students was how to convey abstract concepts of energy in a fun and engaging way to fifth- and sixth-graders who may have had little or no exposure to the sciences.
So the team hooked the bike up to a light box to demonstrate how the students’ pedaling affected the lighting ability of both a traditional incandescent light bulb and a fluorescent energy-saving bulb. When the kids saw firsthand they could light up so many more fluorescents with so much less effort, the team noted a marked shift in the students’ reactions.
“So you can ‘feel’ that the fluorescents take less energy, and seeing the energy bike in action this way turned an abstract into a physical feeling that they could grasp,” says Uys. “It was significant. They saw that science was cool and this is what you could be doing if you studied science in school.”
Advisor Krishnan noted that because the bike’s intricate mechanism was encased in clear plastic, everyone could easily see what was going on. “There was a working generator inside, not a hamster running on a treadmill,” she says. The team was especially careful about the budgeting aspects of the project and even repurposed an old exercise bike to use the frame for their Energy Bike. “The young students observed that they could reuse all kinds of things, to not just throw things away, but use them to make amazing new things—electricity!” says Krishnan. She adds, “Knowing that the small seeds they’ve planted in the minds of these fifth- and sixth-graders might lead to the creation of new technologies we haven’t yet imagined is truly exciting.”
Originally from South Africa, Uys remains at SCU earning a master’s in engineering management. She says her capstone project confirmed that she someday wants a career in industry, but she’s also very interested in teaching and helping people as a means of giving back. About the Walden West project, Uys says, “I knew it was going to be rewarding, but not to this extent. It blew me away to see these kids light up—both literally and figuratively.”