ME 370's Unique "Drench Your Professor" Competition Hones Students' Design Skills

Professor Elizabeth
Professor Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler laughs as she is drenched with ice-cold water.

May 8, 2014

They came from far and wide that warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon in early May, until a crowd had assembled on Engineering Quad just outside the Mechanical Engineering Lab. They gathered there to experience the pageantry of the ME 370, Mechanical Design course's "Drench Your Professor" Competition, which pitted the course's Mechanical Engineering students and their machines against their professors.

As part of ME 370's Final Competition, students were to complete two projects: 1) to write a proposal for a "Drench Your Professor" booth (DYP), and 2) to design and build BLAMs (Ball-LAunching Mechanisms) which, when on target, would trigger the booth's drenching mechanism. On the afternoon of May 7th, the 9 top teams (3 from each section) demonstrated their BLAMs to see which team had the final winning design based on how many times they could dunk their professors.

The assembled crowd of interested onlookers was a hodge-podge comprised of ME 370 students, plus, no doubt, random, curious students who saw a crowd gathering, thought it looked like fun, and stopped to watch. Even Mechanical Science and Engineering staff, faculty, and administration showed up. For example, Bob Coverdill was there, most likely to proudly watch the students succeed; MechSE department head, Placid Ferreira arrived near the end, just in time to see Hsiao-Wecksler and her son get drenched. Also attending were a smattering of other professors, who dropped by to watch colleagues get drenched, and of course, the intrepid ME 370 professors, who were soon to deliver on their promise to risk all in the drenching booth.

The two officials who referreed the competition look on as a team nears the end of their 5-minute practice session.
The two officials who referreed the competition look on as a team nears the end of their 5-minute practice session.

Students and professors alike took it seriously. ME370 course TA's served as the officials. Dressed in traditional black-and-white-striped zebra shirts, they carefully monitored the event to ensure that the rules were followed. Each team would have a five-minute practice session, during which they secured their machine to the launching station, then practiced lobbing bright yellow tennis balls toward a target with a 4-inch or so cylinder at its center, located several feet away. Once students finished practicing, they would then have five tries to get the ball into the cylinder, which would release a payload, breaking the brightly colored, ice-cold-water-filled balloons to drench the professor.

“You have five minutes,” one official announced to a team, who anchored their BLAM in place and began to practice, lobbing their ball at the target cylinder.

ME370 student carefully places water baloons in the dunking booth.
ME 370 course assistant, Joshua Kim, carefully places water balloons in the booth's drenching apparatus.

An ominous-looking scaffolding of wood reminiscent of a Reign of Terror guillotine, evidently the drenching booth with the winning design, had been erected on Engineering Quad. Atop the wooden structure sat a clear plastic apparatus, which would contain the payload of brightly-colored, ice-cold-water-filled balloons. Beneath the apparatus sat one seat, placed on a tarp (evidently to ensure that the professors weren't sitting in a muddy swamp after copious amounts of water were released).

Two students began preparing the payload. One reached into a cooler, carefully picking up the brightly colored missiles of chilled water one by one, then gingerly handing them to course assistant Joshua Kim perched at the top of a ladder, who carefully placed each balloon into the apparatus.

The practice time for the 1st team of students elapsed. The official apprised them that they had five tries.

An ME 370 team that drenched 3 professors on 3 for 5 shooting display their prize-winning BLAM design.
An ME 370 team that drenched 3 professors on 3 for 5 shooting displays their award-winning BLAM design.

A courageous ME 370 instructor, Gavin Horn, took a seat in the booth. The students made their first attempt. Too high. It sailed over the target. Horn began to trash talk.

The students made a second attempt. Very close to its mark, the yellow tennis ball rolled off, ineffective. The crowd oohed.

Horn continued to taunt, implying that the team of students would never hit the target. The team’s 3rd through 5th tries were ineffective. All three professors' shirts were conspicuously dry.

The crowd, eager for blood, experienced keen disappointment, but stayed to see if the next team's contrivance would be more accurate.

Stepping up to the plate, the next team anchored their machine in place, and began practicing.

Above: MechSE Professor Sameh Tawfick glances up at the water balloons poised in the drenching booth's apparatus above him.

Below: Seconds later, Tawfick cringes as the team's ball hits the target, releasing a deluge of ice-cold water.

One can only imagine the gamut of emotions these brave professors in the drenching seat were experiencing: pride in their students’ achievement, secretly rooting for them and wanting them to succeed, and conversely, experiencing a rather Russian-roulette-esque sense of dread and a spike of adrenalin each time the ball was launched, lest their students actually succeed and the payload of ice-cold water plunge down upon them. The professor currently seated in the booth nervously glanced upward, assessing the impact should the students be successful. Evincing a devil-may-care attitude, he taunted the students once more.

In the crowd were many students who had no doubt come to vicariously experience payback to professors everywhere. Whether these ME 370 students knew it or not, a heavy mantle of responsibility was resting on their shoulders. Armed with a mandate from students everywhere, they were expected to symbolically exact revenge on professors who had loaded them down with homework; assigned extensive reading requiring poring over books into the wee hours of the morning through long, cold winter nights; and had given all of those quizzes and exams that students, prepared or not, had been required to take.

A new team stepped up, confident in their design and their skills, no doubt honed through hour after hour of studying, designing, building, and practicing for this, their finest hour. They were motivated by the said desire for revenge, yes, but also a sense of pride in their work, a sense of achievement in a design well-made, and a spirit of competition as, with all the competitors, they no doubt wanted to be the only team whose BLAM hit the target with all five balls.

Gavin Horn nervously glanced upward. The team wound up. The pitch. Bingo. The crowd hooted gleefully as a deluge of ice-cold water poured down onto the instructor, who good-naturedly gave the team a thumbs up.

The crowd cheered. The students selected a second professor, Sameh Tawfick who nervously sat down in the chair.

The students tried again. A miss. The crowd groaned in disappointment. The team tried again and almost made it. The crowd crooned, "Ahhhhhh." They wound up again. The pitch. It went straight on target into the cylinder, just like Luke Skywalker’s final shot into the port of the Death Star in Star Wars. The crowd cheered, as a second professor, Sameh Tawfick, was drenched.

Still thirsty for blood, the team had two more balls left, and requested a third professor, Elizabeth Hsiao-Wecksler, whom they succeeded in drenching as well. Well-wishers in the crowd and fellow-students congratulated them. High-fiving one another, they proudly finished the event, for which they received their medals: white plastic gears emblazoned with “ME 370 Finalist,” which token each team member proudly received.

Sameh Tawfick (right), shakes hands with the ME370 student who successfully dunked him.
Sameh Tawfick (right), shakes hands with the ME 370 student (left) whose team successfully dunked him.

They were 3 for 5, a pretty good showing.

Another team took the plate. However, in a poor judgment call, they indicated that they still had a minute of practice left, thus, their next swing would still be a trial ball—a grievous tactical error.

With alacrity, the professor who had already been ensconced in the seat, jumped up and out of the way. (After all, the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois doesn’t hire dumb professors.)

The team swung. A direct hit, and the payload of ice-cold-water futilely dropped down on a vacant seat. The professor grinned cockily at his near escape.

MechSE Professor Gavin Horn gives the team that dunked him a thumbs up.
ME 370 instructor Gavin Horn gives the team that dunked him a thumbs up.

Though disappointed, the crowd more eagerly watched the proceedings with anticipation, knowing that this team had potential.

The team finished their practice shots. The professor sat in the seat. A direct hit: another drenched professor.

At the end of their turn, this team had successfully dunked two. High fives around.

All in all, anyone who attended the event would say it was a great success. The students exacted their revenge and experienced a sense of achievement. The professors, who had obviously taught their students well, also left with a similar sense of achievement, no doubt rejoicing that it had been a warm, 80+degree day and not the end of the fall semester.

With the potential to inspire students everywhere and to urge the ME 370 students on to greater and more glorious achievements, this reporter submits that this should definitely become an annual event on the Illinois campus.

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: MechSE, Undergrad, 2014

Team of CE370 students show their BLAM design which allowed them to successfully dunk two professors, including Davin Horn (right).
A team of ME 370 students display their BLAM design which allowed them to successfully dunk two professors, including Gavin Horn (right).