Second Annual ECE Spark Party a Huge Success!

IEEE Officers Briana Morey and Michael Leferman.

December 14, 2007

The second annual Spark Party was held in Atwater Kent 116 on the evening of November 15th. Over 250 students, faculty, staff, and relatives attended the three-hour long event, during which presenters demonstrated interesting phenomena in ECE that produced loud noises and sparks, discussed their research or projects, and shared talents in non-ECE activities. This year’s Spark Party featured thirteen acts that ranged from a student-martial artist teaching the audience how to perform an “electromagnetic karate chop” to the showcasing of two giant Tesla coils.

The first Spark Party was held in 2006 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ECE building, Atwater Kent Laboratories. The event was organized by IEEE officers Briana Morey (BS-ECE '08) and Michael Leferman (BS-ECE ’07, M.S. ’08) along with Prof. Alexander Emanuel and other members of the IEEE. WPI oral tradition recounts similar events that took place over 50 years ago in Atwater Kent, and which served as the inspiration for the event’s inception. Last year’s Spark Partywas such a success that the IEEE officers decided to make it an annual event.

A new twist to this year’s Spark Party was the addition of an Ionization Party, for recruiting freshmen and students who are still deciding on a major. Prof. Richard Vaz, Dean of Interdisciplinary and Global Studies and former ECE faculty member, coined the term “Ionization Party” noting that "before a spark, there must be ionization". Prof. Emanuel gave a brief talk, explaining that the ECE department is a nurturing environment where the students are focused on becoming honorable people and skilled engineers and noting that the faculty members help each other with research and teaching.  Prof. Vaz discussed off-campus ECE MQP opportunities in Limerick, Ireland. Finally, students who completed their MQPs in Ireland this past A-term spoke about their 10-week experience and why they chose ECE as their majors.

The 2007 Spark Party officially started immediately after the Ionization Party with a buffet dinner followed by an introduction by Briana Morey and Michael Leferman. 

Image on the right: Prof. Jim O'Rourke giving a live demonstration of the the human body's ability to conduct electricity.

Following the introduction, ECE administrative assistant and singer extraordinaire Brenda McDonald taught those attending the event how to sing the WPI Alma Mater.  The audience quickly learned the song and gave an enthusiastic performance - even if it was a bit out of tune!

Prof. Jim O’Rourke followed with demonstrations of Wimhurst and Van de Graaff generators.  In one of his demonstrations, O'Rourke connected the terminals of a Wimhurst Generator to two parallel plates, touched conductive-coated ping pong balls to them, and let the balls bounce continuously between the plates without stopping.  As the balls hit the plates, they became charged and were driven away from the plate they just touched while simultaneously being attracted to the other plate. As soon the generator was turned off, the ping pong balls stopped their bouncing. In his second demonstration, O'Rourke used the Wimhurst Generator to spin a mounted ping pong ball on a vertical axis.  As a finale, Prof. O’Rourke, using himself as a conductor, directly touched the Van de Graaf Generator, making the propeller in his hand spin and the hair on his head stand on end!

In the next act, Justin Cox, ECE ’08, and fellow members of the WPI Shotokan Karate Club demonstrated the art of breaking boards with their bare hands and feet, using impressive punches and kicks to break the boards. At the end of his act, Justin invited members of the audience to the stage to break boards and "learn by doing"!

Image on the right: Justin Cox, ECE '08, gives a karate demonstration, assisted by Yanxuan Xie, CE '10 and Jenn Gosselin, BIO '08.

Prof. James Duckworth then demonstrated his lab’s “Mantenna” - a rescue device used to monitor physiological signals and track emergency personnel while they are indoors.  The idea for the  was inspired by the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage building fire where six firefighters were killed. The presentation began with a Ghostbusters-themed video showing a test of the Mantenna in a large abandoned building. After the video, his graduate students gave a live demonstration, using the Mantenna to find a transmitter that was hidden among the audience.

Following Prof. Duckworth’s demonstrations, Prof. Peder Pederson gave a PowerPoint presentation showing how his lab’s portable ultrasound imaging unit is designed to conduct medical imaging at accident sites.  He described how the system was successfully used during accidents at a “staged disaster,” a motocross event in California.  For more information on the portable ultrasound imaging unit, please visit the ImagiSonix website.  

Prof. Bitar's presentation explained how noise cancellation headphones operate.  To demonstrate noise cancellation, he initially hooked up speakers to function generators that produced sine waves that were in phase, and the audience heard a monotonal noise. When he changed the functions such that the signals were 180 degrees out of phase, the monotonal noise disappeared.  His next trick was to create rhythmic beats by generating signals at two slightly different frequencies. When the signals were in phase with one another, the audience heard a sound, and when they were 180 degrees out of phase, the audience heard a break between the sounds – musical “beats”.

Chris King, a graduate student in the computer science department, then impressed the audience with his musical skills by playing several songs on his synthesizing accordion. These songs included the Mario, Kirby’s Dreamland, and Zelda theme songs.

Prof. McNeill showed the audience how to build a circuit that models the exponentially increasing amount of stress that WPI students experience as each term progresses. To create an exponentially increasing function using analog components, one would need a negative resistance, which Prof. McNeill created by using an op-amp with positive feedback.   He comically displayed four periods of the waveform to represent the four terms at WPI.

ECE graduate student Kevin Bobrowski presented his award-winning MQP from last year: a robot for the Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest.  His video showed the robot identifying a soldering iron (simulating a candle) and then spraying water on it as it would to extinguish a flame.  The robot was also capable of locating a simulated baby in a small maze.  He also discussed how he and his team designed and built the robot.  Watch the video. 

Professor Emanuel performing

Prof. Alex Emanuel amazed the audience with what appeared to be a magic trick. In the beginning of his demonstration, he placed a ring onto a post, and the ring remained stationary. He showed that the ring levitated when he lightly pushed his foot onto a pedal, and it flew off of the post when he applied a significant amount of pressure to the pedal. To “prove” that he was capable of using only his mind to move the ring, he walked away from the table and stared at the ring on the post.  After a few moments, the ring was flung off of the post. He asked several people from the audience to repeat the task, but no one was able to keep the ring on the post; the ring seemed to “magically” fly up uncontrollably!  At the end of the demonstration, he disclosed that Pat Morrison, the shop manager, was sitting in the audience holding a remote control. When Mr. Morrison pushed a button on the remote control, current was applied to a coil located in a box beneath the table. This current in the box's coil induced an opposite current in a coil inside the ring, and the repulsion between the coil inside the box and the coil inside the ring caused the ring to fly off of the post.

Copper Tree performing live at the Spark Party.

Copper Tree, an alternative rock band that began at WPI, played three songs that they were recording for a CD the weekend after the Spark Party. The three members are Liam Morely, CS ’08, keyboardist and vocalist; Damien Rigden, ME ’08, bass guitarist; and Ravi Vasudevan, ECE ’08, drummer.

The finale of the night was the unveiling of the sparks produced by a pair of five-foot tall Tesla coils, set approximately six feet apart from one another. When the coils were turned on, the audience witnessed six-foot-long sparks that arced between the coils, resembling lightning. Unlike lightning, however, which lasts for less than a second, the Tesla coils can produce sparks that last for several minutes. Prof. Emanuel demonstrated the immense power of the Tesla coils by placing fluorescent light bulbs close enough to the coils to illuminate without contact.

The Tesla coils featured at the Spark Party were borrowed from one of Prof. Emanuel’s former students, Rick Ladroga.  Currently, a group of ECE students are designing and building their own seven-foot Tesla coils. The students conducted extensive research to obtain schematics and find appropriate materials, most of which were purchased from Home Depot and McMaster-Carr. Prof. Emanuel provided the students with a spark gap from his old power laboratory, and Rick Ladroga donated one of his transformers for the project.

Image on the right: Prof. Alex Emanuel demonstrating the power of the five-foot-tall Tesla Coils.

After the Spark Party, IEEE President, Briana Morey, stated, "[The Spark Party] is one of the best community builders I have ever seen...Studying in this department is challenging and, like anything that takes four years to accomplish, has its moments of excitement and its moments of frustration. The Spark Party is a great way to re-center the students and get them excited about electrical engineering, about the department, and about the IEEE, and to show them the incredible things that education makes us capable of.  It's a really good time for everyone.


Article research and draft provided by Rachelle L Horwitz, a WPI ECE senior.



December 14, 2007