University of Rochester

EVENT: These Students' Grades Really are Up in the Air

December 3, 1999

A group of freshmen at the University of Rochester will see their first semester of college engineering education culminate overhead this weekend when they launch small rockets which they have built and outfitted with commercial, off-the-shelf electronic devices. The students are frantically checking their instruments, working through their calculations, and testing hardware. The vital "payload"---the first grades of their college career---depend on it.

The event Saturday is much more than a simple launch of pre-built model rockets, says Jack Mottley, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. In this introductory engineering class, students drew on their math and physics background and used modern computer tools to predict the behavior of the rockets, including such real-world effects as drag from the air. They have also designed and built circuitry to make measurements to verify those predictions.

Most of their time has gone into customizing everyday electronic devices that fill our lives, like the microprocessors that regulate the temperature in our refrigerators, the components that allow us to speed-dial our telephones, or the detectors that prompt air bags to inflate. The students programmed these devices to collect data on each rocket's ascent and flight path, then will compare that data to their classroom predictions.

It's all part of their first taste of engineering at the University, whose School of Engineering and Applied Sciences by many measures ranks among the top 10 private engineering schools nationwide.

"The rockets are a flashy way to keep students interested in engineering," says Mottley. "It also provides a tremendous workout for their math and physics skills, and it gives them a sense of what electrical and computer engineering is all about. The students have done everything from etching circuits to doing the mathematics behind any rocket launch. The real-world situation includes the type of analysis that students usually don't see until much later in their college careers."

Note to Editors: Nine teams of students will begin launching their rockets at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 4; the event should run at least until 11:30 a.m. The launch site is a baseball field on University property, just east of the very southern tip of Intercampus Drive, close to where the road nearly intersects the canal path. A map is available. If winds are greater than 20 mph, the event will be postponed until 9:30 a.m. Sunday.