May 06, 2009 | Myrna Anderson

In a cubicle in the Engineering Building, senior engineering student Tom Kok is holding the prototype of a little airplane that needs some work: “How is it going to fly without any wings?” asks Calvin engineering professor David Wunder.

In a cubicle in the Engineering Building in mid-April, senior engineering student Tom Kok is holding the prototype of a little airplane that needs some work:

“How is it going to fly without any wings?” asks Calvin engineering professor David Wunder.

“We’re going to throw it really hard,” Kok responds, smiling.

The plane is an unmanned vehicle equipped for aerial photography and created by “Plane!,” a team composed of electrical engineers Ian Hoffbeck, Brett Pennings, Christian Swenson and Kok. The team still has time to re-attach the wings and make other necessary tweaks to this, their fourth prototype, before they show it off at the Senior Design Banquet and Open House, held 4–6 p.m. on Saturday, May 9, in the Engineering Building.

Engineering overtime

The open house, a showcase of the projects it has taken senior engineers an entire academic year to produce, is the capstone of a Calvin engineering education. And the 15 senior design teams that will present their projects on May 9 have been putting in a lot of hours in recent weeks.

“A lot of times we’re here from 7 a.m. to 12 or 1 a.m. …,” said Matt Lubbers, an electrical engineer on “Storbot,” a team which devised a robotic arm to move items in warehouses. “I spend 11 hours a day in the machine shop, and, when the machine shop closes, I spend a lot of time designing.”

In cubicles adjacent to Storbot’s, senior teams composed of civil and environmental, electrical and computer, mechanical, and chemical engineers are wrestling with their own engineering challenges: building a small-scale wind energy system; building a chariot-style vehicle for transporting physically disabled persons in road races; devising a culturally appropriate, small-scale rice-drying system; producing a remotely-controlled submersible research vessel (“Basically, it will be an underwater eye,” said mechanical engineer Ken Haan, who is working on the sub); designing a cell phone system that synchronizes with a land line; creating a device that will lift and pour chemicals from barrels; extracting biofuel from a Jatropha seed; making charcoal out of wastepaper;  designing an economical and environmentally friendly high school gymnasium; dealing with flood-control issues in both Byron Township and Hudsonville; designing a green roof system for Calvin’s new Commons building; and making brackish water more treatable. (The last-mentioned team, The Marah Project, won a specially created Performance Award for their project at WERC's Environmental Design Contest back in April.)

Real-life engineering

“The course is intended to transition them from class work to the real world, and engineering projects take months to years of real effort,” Wunder said of Senior Design Project, the class that yields such a profusion of engineering concepts.

The process of engineering is a good teacher, he said. “We allow them to fail along the way, and quite a bit is learned and can be learned through error.”

Ryan Mejeur, an electrical engineer who had to learn a bit of mechanical engineering while working on the robotic arm, agreed: “We’ve been joking that we should get two certificates, one for mechanical and one for electrical,” he said.

Calvin engineers learn more than the intricacies of their concentration, said Wunder. They also learn the value of every type of engineering work:

Kingdom projects

“Regardless of concentration, we expect that every Calvin engineering graduate will invest his or her life in kingdom work, leveraging their gifts and training for a lifetime that serves the needs of the world,” he said. “We see kingdom work in the engineering of water purification systems, in the design of enhancements to phone systems, as well as the development of alternative fuels from novel sources. All of these projects link the gifts and efforts of engineers with the needs of the world.”

The uncertain job market adds some extra challenges for graduating engineers, Wunder said: “I haven’t seen pessimism … They are surprisingly optimistic about the future, but not without some heightened stress due to the economy.”

On Saturday night, the senior engineers, will dress in formal attire to present their projects twice—once at the open house and, later, to faculty, friends and loved ones. The occasion, though a happy one, generates its own kind of stress, Hoffbeck admitted: “It’s a day of reckoning.”

Taking flight, taking photos

Earlier in the week, he and the rest of team “Plane!” were in the middle of the soccer field near the Bunker Center, test-flying their prototype. Back in December, the team won the Calvin BizPlan competition with their concept for marketing the automated plane, which they believe will appeal to surveyors, cartographers and others who need aerial footage. The win gave the team a psychic boost and the cash to keep them in airframes. Two have crashed with no hope of repair, and another simply wore out.

The fourth airframe is holding steady, and, for this flight, the team increases the range of the rudder. The plane takes off, under Kok’s remote control, and swoops over the guys playing flag football, flying in big loops around the field and landing with a hard bounce.

“That landing could have been better,” Kok said.

The little plane is taking good pictures, however. “The images are sweet,” said Pennings. “We got a lot of footage of the Ecosystem Preserve.”

“We got a picture from 200 feet up,” said Kok, “and Christian is identifiable.”


Members of Team Plane!, left to right: Ian Hoffbeck, Tom Kok, Christian Swenson, (absent) Brett Pennings

Watch videos

Take video tours of four senior engineering design projects:

Plane + - designing and prototyping an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for the purpose of aerial photography.

S3 (South Christian High School) - designing the structural plans for a new gymnasium and to performing site development and layout of parking lots, roads and storm water management.

TRIumph - designing and constructing a chariot-style vehicle that is able to be both pulled behind a bicycle and pushed by a runner competing in a triathlon.

STORBOT - designing a robotic arm to move items in warehouses.

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