Out of numerous exhibitions at the 2023 University of Wisconsin-Madison Engineering Expo, a “makeshift” Wisconsin Robotics Mars rover was one that Expo Executive Chair Stephen Zhao was particularly interested in highlighting.
“Seeing how a drone or a robot like that works, it’s really cool for students to build their curiosity and be fascinated,” he said.
“Sparking ideas and igniting potential” for future engineers inspires the expo, which brought in keynote speakers, around a dozen hands-on activities and more than 50 engineering student organizations, Zhao explained.
Those exhibitions, spanning throughout UW-Madison’s engineering campus, were scaled down to a “middle school level of content” for the younger students visiting.
The expo first began in 1940 and changed over the years to its current form as a two-day event. Friday is reserved for invited schools, Zhao said, with Saturday open to the public — attendance on both days is free of charge. Around 1,500 students were invited Friday, and there were an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 attendees Saturday, according to Zhao.
The event’s history inspired Zhao during the planning process, a year-long effort by the 14 students on its executive board. Zhao explained that selecting themes for the exhibitions was an old tradition the current executive board brought back after going through 1990s booklets advertising the event. This year’s theme — environmental sustainability — was selected to coincide with the weekend of Earth Day.
One industry presenter Zhao spoke to on Friday said “he visited expo as a kid when he was nine years old.” That experience “inspired him to become an engineer,” Zhao said.
“Ever since he went into corporate and got his engineering job, he’s come to the expo to volunteer as the Oshkosh representative,” Zhao said. “[It’s] really cool to hear because at the end of the day, that is our goal for this event.”
In preparation, Zhao and other executive members reach out to student organizations potentially interested in showcasing their work, and rely on industry connections and sponsors to run the event.
The College of Engineering’s response, particularly toward providing lecture hall space, has been one of “acceptance and appreciation,” Zhao said, with the dean of the college, Ian Robertson, “encouraging professors to either cancel their class or find a different area to host it online, so that we can have expo on campus, because he knows the legacy behind it and what it’s doing to build community.”
What’s on display:
Ben Nowotny and Andrew Engedal, members of Wisconsin Robotics, showcased a rover “designed around what a rover might actually have to do on Mars” that will be used in the University Rover Challenge competition.
“The science is my favorite,” Engedal said. “There’s a lot of interdisciplinary work going on because we have to collect soil samples and then we need [biologists] to analyze them. We even have physics students that work on a spectrometer to analyze chemical bonds — it’s very similar to what an actual Mars rover would have to do.”
Nowotny said there was “a lot of positive engagement both yesterday and today” from those viewing the rover, which the two piloted around an area in the mechanical engineering building.
“A lot of people like seeing both the rover and all of the other outreach projects we have — we think it’s a good fit for younger audiences that maybe are getting introduced to STEM,” he said.
Jared Beek, a member of UW-Madison’s Concrete Canoe team, presented at a booth alongside his other team members.
“We design, build and race a boat made out of concrete,” Beek explained.
“It’s a very interesting club, not traditional in any sense of the way. It forces not only kids but also their parents to think outside the box and take something like concrete, that’s not a very efficient material, and make it into a boat that floats,” said Beek.
Michael Chiariello, a biomedical engineering student at UW-Madison, used a model heart filled with liquid, which participants could squeeze themselves, to demonstrate how differences in aorta sizes affect the heart’s ability to pump blood.
“Unfortunately, there are some kids who are born with skinnier aortas, called coarcted aortas [that are] smaller in diameter. This makes it much more challenging to pump blood to the rest of the bodies — there’s much higher resistance,” Chiarello said.
The model heart had two differently-sized tubes that could be attached to it, with the one smaller in diameter meant to represent a coarcted aorta. Chiarello wanted to show “how interesting the heart organ is and get kids a little bit more excited about science,” in addition to “demons[trating] a complex idea in a simpler way.”