Student Branch Sparks Interest in IEEE

Students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, have their annual Spark Party

7 January 2008

The IEEE student branch at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, really knows how to make sparks fly. On 15 November, the branch held its second annual Spark Party—so named because it features demonstrations of devices that create electricity and, of course, electric sparks.

“The event represents the best things about electrical engineering,” says branch chair Briana Morey, who was instrumental in organizing the party, which proved to be a successful member recruitment and retention tool. After the first party in November 2006, which drew about 200 students, the branch’s membership jumped by about 15 percent, to 146 members. This year, more than 250 students attended. (As this article went to press, the number of new IEEE recruits was still being tallied.)

Morey attributes the growth in membership to the message the Spark Party sends to students.

“We show them that electrical engineering is not all hard work and studying. All the theory we learn in class and the practical experience we gain in labs can be applied to creating an exciting engineering project,” she says.

A pair of 1.5-meter-tall Tesla coils was the hit of the night, according to Morey. Named after its inventor, Nikola Tesla, a Tesla coil is a type of resonant transformer that produces electricity at high voltage.

IEEE Senior Member Rick Ladroga turned on the Tesla coils, set about 1.8 meters apart, and generated gigantic sparks that arched between the coils and cracked with noise. It looked and sounded like “continuous lightning bolts,” says Morey. “It was awesome.”

A HISTORY OF SPARKS The WPI student branch got the idea for its party more than a year ago after learning from a professor about the school’s Spark Party tradition that had WPI engineering students showing off their talents for assembling power equipment and scaring their friends with loud sparks. The branch decided to bring back that tradition in 2006 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the construction of WPI’S Atwater Kent electrical engineering building and because it sounded like fun, Morey says.

Tesla coils were a must at that party, but they weren’t the only stars of the night. The branch got help from several EE professors, including Alexander Emanuel. He, Morey, and IEEE Member Michael Leferman—then a senior EE student—solicited professors and students to bring their power equipment, personal engineering projects, and talent for entertaining to that first Spark Party. In addition to the Teslas, last year’s party also showed off a plasma thruster, normally used for long-distance space travel. The thruster, which was also demonstrated this year, created a “really big bang and a bright spark that we couldn’t look directly at,” Morey says.

HAIR ON END This year’s Spark Party took it up a notch, with more power-equipment demonstrations than before. For example, there were Van de Graff generators, which generate electricity—with loud sparks—using a spinning electrostatic belt. Jim O’Rourke, a WPI EE professor, used the generated electricity to spin ping-pong balls, swirl confetti, and perform other tricks, including making his hair stand on end. “It was comical because of how his hair looked as he kept shocking himself,” Morey says. O’Rourke also demonstrated another electrostatic generator, a Wimshurst generator, which creates sparks by rubbing two metal plates together.

The entertainment wasn’t limited to engineering demonstrations. One EE student played videogame theme songs on an accordion that he had modified to include a synthesizer. Copper Tree, a band made up of EE undergrads, and the sketch comedy group the Eclectic Comedy Engineers also performed.

Word about the success of WPI’s party has spread to other schools. IEEE student branches at Texas A&M, in College Station, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., are also planning Spark parties this year.

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