In lieu of a dry lecture on the wonders of electromagnetism, Team Shocks and Jolts built a contraption that combines elements of an automotive solenoid and a pinball machine.
“The idea is to get the kids curious and make them wonder. How does that projectile move up the tube? What makes the light go on? It’s not magic. It’s electromagnetism,” said Rachel Nguyen, a sophomore in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at Rice University and a member of the design team that built a device for the Shocks and Jolts exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Houston.
Assembled in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice, the exhibit was installed in the museum in May. The museum calls the Rice creation Electromagnetic Launcher/Lanzador Electromagnético. The interactive device is simple in design: two transparent plastic tubes angled at 45 degrees on a laser-cut wooden frame. In each tube are three coils of copper wire connected to a power source, with small lightbulbs in place at the top of the tubes.
By pushing the first of three buttons, each corresponding to one of the coils, a museum visitor electrifies the first coil and releases the magnetized projectile up the tube. As it reaches the second coil, the object is to press the second button, electrifying the coil, which in effect becomes a solenoid and sends the object further up the tube. The same follows with the third button and coil. If the museum visitor times the button-pressing successfully, the projectile will reach the top and turn on the light, thus winning the game.
“The coils become temporary magnets. The direction of the coils determines the poles of the magnet,” said Nguyen, who grew up in Houston and visited the Children’s Museum as a child.
“The biggest thing we wanted to get across was the relationship between electricity and magnetism, but doing it in a fun way,” said Saad Yousaf, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. All team members are sophomores who met freshman year in their Engi 120, “Introduction to Engineering Design” class. The others are “Sammi” Lu and Karen Vasquez, both in bioengineering.
Keith Ostfeld, the museum’s director of digital learning, explains how the Electromagnetic Launcher compliments the rest of the Shocks and Jolts exhibit:
“We discovered kids typically aren’t introduced to electricity in school until the fourth or fifth grade, and then they don’t study it again until high school. It’s a real shame because kids live in a world of electricity and electronics and are fascinated by it. So, we created a space where families and kids of any age can immerse themselves in electrical explorations.”
The museum attracts some 800,000 visitors each year. The team sponsors are Carolyn ’63 and Harrell Huff, and their faculty adviser is Gene Frantz, professor in the practice of signal processing in ECE.