Spring break isn’t supposed to be as stressful as finals week.
But for a quintet of Union College seniors hoping to lift a 32-pound weight roughly 75 feet in the air using a 12-pound, hand-built remote-control airplane, this year’s recess was every bit as nerve-racking. Maybe even a bit more so.
“It was a lot of work,” admitted Charlie Bouchard of Schenectady.
“Yeah,” added Josh Rathgeb of Skaneateles. “We didn’t really have a spring break.”
But the five students succeeded and their airplane soared into the California sky during the Society of Automotive Engineer’s aero-life competition last month, landing them an admirable eighth-place finish — fourth among teams from the United States. Their achievement might have gone largely unnoticed around the Union campus were it not for the presentations for the Steinmetz Symposium Friday.
A model of the airplane was on display with several other engineering projects in a small courtyard outside the Wold Center. Along with it were the hefty metal weights the original craft managed to keep airborne during the competition.
“Showing it off has been pretty awesome,” Bouchard said as curious onlookers examined the airplane.
An annual rite of spring at Union since 1991, the presentations give undergraduates a chance to demonstrate projects in their discipline that they’ve toiled over for the better part of a year or more. Named after famed electrical engineer and Union professor Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the presentations touch on a wide variety of applied knowledge, from mechanical sciences to choreography.
There’s no competition per se. Rather, the presentations are a chance for students give their peers, professors and parents an insight into their work, explained Kristin Fox, Union’s director of undergraduate research, who oversees the symposium.
“They make that special extra push during Steinmetz Day,” she said. “It’s really sort of a capstone on a project they’ve been working on all year.”
About 400 students participated in the symposium this year. Some use their presentations as a final project for a class, while others will continue to elaborate on them as part of a senior thesis.
Some projects wind up before an even broader audience. Connor Gagliardi’s study of the proteins involved in programmed cell death in fungi was presented at an experimental biology conference in Boston that was attended by thousands of scientists from around the globe last month.
The Steinmetz Symposium presentations gave him a chance to feature his work on campus. Gagliardi said friends and classmates get to explain in detail what they’ve been working on — a satisfying experience after working on a project for months or even years.
“It’s nice to see what they’ve been doing and it’s nice to show off what you’ve been doing as well,” he said.
Some students use their presentations to explore academic areas outside of their majors. Caitlin Lentlie, a sophomore majoring in English, dedicated her project to creating a lab that will appeal to those normally adverse to studying chemistry.
Her tactic? Entice them with chocolate fudge.
Lentlie’s project explores chemistry’s sweet tooth, so to speak. She studied the effect of sugar and sugar substitutes on the consistency of fudge.
Quick recipes for fudge rely on substitute sweeteners derived from corn syrup. The syrup’s higher saccharide content prevents crystallization that can occur during the fudge-making process.
“The crystallization is vital for the structure of the fudge,” she explained.
Lentlie made four batches of fudge: One with a corn-syrup sweetener, another with artificial sugar and two with regular sugar; one stirred slightly and the other made traditionally. She then examined each batch beneath a microscope to demonstrate the structural difference between the crystals in each fudge.
“You can see how gritty it is if you don’t stir it,” she said.
And she also provided samples so that people could taste for themselves. Seeing the difference is one thing, she explained, but tasting it is entirely different.
“It’s a way to make people feel comfortable and interested with chemistry,” she said.