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Over the past few weeks, you may have noticed, Burton Lawn has occasionally sprouted a series of miniature buildings designed to demonstrate the potential of solar energy in the midst of a New England winter.

The structures were built by first-year students in Engineering 100, taught by Paul Voss, assistant professor of engineering.

Working in teams, the students constructed the buildings using computer-aided design and rapid-prototyping, a process in which a laser printer cuts wood and cardboard in designated shapes. The students first studied the physics of energy, calculated heat loss and solar gain, researched materials, and wired miniature computers to run fans, open vents, measure temperatures and light levels, and store data for later analysis.

Then they did it all again -- adding refinements based on the results of testing their initial constructions -- with the new goal of storing energy during the day to keep their buildings warm and lit after sunset.

The final miniature buildings were displayed during the afternoon and evening on December 20 on Chapin Lawn, where they glowed into the dark hours using stored solar energy.

Following his observation of the class, Richard Felder, a leader in engineering education (Felder's son Gary Felder is an assistant professor of physics at Smith), noted: “To see junior and senior engineering students doing this sort of project-based work would be laudable; the fact that these are students just out of high school is staggering.”

There are only six to eight schools in the country teaching new undergraduate students in this project- and concept-based manner, he said. Project-based learning immerses students in the field of study, motivating them to formulate their own questions and take an active role in their education. Project-based learning is part of the Smith curriculum in several disciplines.

12/19/06   By Carole Fuller
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