COLLEGE PARK -- A dozen Baltimore high school students pitted their math and carpentry skills against the forces of Nature yesterday.
Two teams of would-be engineers from Polytechnic Institute hauled a pair of hand-crafted solar cookers onto the sunny lawn of the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering.
Their goal, like that of 38 teams of College Park engineering students gathered there: boil water long enough to cook an egg, and do it faster than anybody else.
The boil-off was the climax of an innovative educational experiment linking the Clark School with Poly's senior engineering practicum. More than a dozen Poly seniors have spent the school year studying, designing and building the solar-powered cookers and a wind turbine. In the past week, they have submitted their handi work for tests.
The program is designed "to get them interested in engineering, to see what it is so they can make informed decisions" about their future, said chemical engineering professor Dr. Thomas M. Regan. "A lot of them are doing quality work."
Designing and building the cooker was a challenge, said 18-year-old senior Paul Stankiewicz. But "the real lesson was to learn how to work together. Without the group effort, it wasn't going to get done."
He and teammates Ivy Evans, Kamal Chaudry, Dameion Henry, Martin Prosper and Michael Eaton hovered around a thermometer as the sun beat down on the reflective Mylar surface of their solar collector. They had curved it into a parabolic shape to focus the sun's energy on a water-filled copper pipe.
After a little more than 15 minutes, the thermometer reached 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and water in the pipe began to steam and bubble. "We're boiling!" one shouted.
Not far away, Poly seniors Chris Choi, Kimberly Bush, Tara Lugay, Alicia Pinderhughes and Ronald Godsey tweaked a much smaller cooker that had been warming for 20 minutes and reached only 114 degrees. A bigger cooker would have gathered more solar energy, but "we started construction roughly two weeks ago," Mr. Godsey said. With so little time, "we had to decide on a smaller size."
A team of College Park students a few steps away was no comfort. Their elegant, circular dish was formed from 350 palm-size mirrors, each one positioned to form a powerful, composite parabolic mirror. Teammates Tony Yu, Christine Gonzalez, Steve Barnett, Idriss Fofana, and Guy Lucas needed just 55 seconds to boil water.
But the event was more of a "festival" than a competition, said Peter A. Minderman Jr., a College Park engineering instructor who guided the Poly students this year.
They will not be graded by how well their creations perform, but by their final report, detailing what they did, where they went wrong and what they learned from it.
"It's not a performance course," Dr. Minderman said. "It's a journey course."
Dr. Regan said he hopes in time to bring three more Baltimore-area high schools into the project.
The idea is to expose students to engineering through the Clark school's revamped freshman engineering curriculum, "Introduction to Engineering Design."
College Park's old curriculum required first-year students to take mechanical drawing and computer programming in classes of up to 150. Not surprisingly, 40 percent of College Park's freshman engineering students were switching majors.
The new approach, developed five years ago in cooperation with six other engineering schools around the country, emphasizes hands-on design experience. Teams of just five students work ++ together to solve real engineering problems.
Today, only about 27 percent of engineering students leave the major after the first year, Dr. Regan said.
The experience has "pretty much assured my path in design engineering," said Mr. Stankiewicz, who took obvious pride in the solar collector his Poly team had built from scratch.
Last week, another team of Poly seniors tested their gangly, 5-foot tall wind turbine in the $770-an-hour Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel at College Park, normally used to test submarine, jet fighter and auto designs.
As the wind in the tunnel reached 10 mph, Johnny Macon, 17, and Nathaniel Johnson, 18, watched their fragile creation and worried.
Their goal was to generate 5 watts of electricity. But so far, their gizmo's blades weren't moving. They had assembled the turbine from scraps of paneling, vinyl floor covering, bike and auto parts, cardboard, Styrofoam and plenty of duct tape.
"We discourage them from building from kits," explained Lori Fritzsche, who teaches the senior engineering practicum at Poly. "They're adapting what they have. . . . It gets them to look at things in more than one way."
When the wind reached 11.2 mph, the vertical, egg-beaterlike blades began to rotate.
At 15 mph, Mr. Macon began to question their choice of materials. The axle -- held in place partly by Styrofoam -- was wearing through its supports. "The Styrofoam can't keep the thing straight," he said.
When the structure threatened to topple, someone stopped the wind.
Even so, the device had worked. It generated 1 milliwatt, or one one-thousandth of a watt.