Dartmouth engineering students go green, go fast, go everywhere, in balanced fashion

Earlier this week, I participated in a panel discussion at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering where we covered the challenges to science and technology journalists in separating the truth from the hype. Hype in science and technology you say?
Written by David Berlind, Inactive on

Earlier this week, I participated in a panel discussion at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering where we covered the challenges to science and technology journalists in separating the truth from the hype. Hype in science and technology you say? There's no hype! It's all truth! He he. Co-panelists in the discussion were MIT Technology Review's Jason Pontin, eWeek's Jim Rapoza, BBC The World's Jason Margolis, The Scientist's Ivan Oransky, and Science Magazine's Andrew Lawler. It was a fun and vibrant discussion where there wasn't nearly enough time to discuss how social technologies like the blogosphere (where lots of minds can work on one problem) can help weed the truth out of the hype (or non-factual coverage). Hey, it happens every day here on ZDNet where, in the Talkbacks, ZDNet's readers are always trying to straighten out my twisted mind.

Just as interesting though was an exhibition at the engineering school that took place just prior to the panel discussion where I had a chance to check out some cool projects and meet with their inventors. Here's a brief summary of what I saw:

Look ma! No training wheels!

When was the last time you played around with a gyroscope and noticed how it manages to keep itself upright, even when the rotor is almost done spinning? Well, some clever students at Dartmouth took the principle and applied it to a bicycle, the idea being that even at extremely slow speeds, a bicycle won't want to fall down the way an ordinary bike does today.

It was a particularly timely exhibit for me to see since, just this last Saturday, I taught my five year-old son how to ride his bike without its training wheels. For parents, the day that your kid asks to learn how to ride a two-wheeler simultaneously represents both a moment of pride and horror. "He's brave" you say. "And he's growing up!" Such proud parents. "But what if s/he falls and breaks an arm?" Gulp.

Maybe he's a born cyclist, I don't know. But I gave my son one push and he rode off like an expert. So, while I was still scratching my head over that one, I bumped into the inventors of the Gyrobike. Basically, the Gryobike replaces the hub of a bike's front wheel with a gyroscope. Once the rotor starts spinning (as it would when someone learning to ride a bike tries to get going), the bike actually resists falling down, thereby making it much easier to get started. Here's a YouTube video that shows it riding by itself.

Just the same way I had mixed emotions as I took my son to the playground to learn how to ride his bike, I have mixed emotions about something like the Gyrobike. On the one hand, I like the way it minimizes the chances of a learning-to-ride catastrophe. On the other, I wonder if it's better for the developing motor skills of children to overcome the challenges of balancing a bike on their own. By the time Saturday was over, my son was not only beaming with pride over his accomplisment, he had mastered the idea that he needs a certain amount of acceleration to get started and velocity to stay balanced.

Even so, if Gyrobike reaches the market (and inexpensively so), it will likely be a hit with most parents since very few get introspective about things like that. Since Gyrobike is really just about replacing the hub in the front wheel, I suggested to the inventors that they check-in with Shimano (a company that makes a range of cycling hubs and just about every other component that goes on a bike frame).

Zero to 60 in three seconds?

Also on exhibit at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering were two alternative energy Indy-style race cars. At least one of the "green" machines (maybe both) are capable of accelerating from zero to 60 mph in a mere 3 seconds (that gives you some idea of the torque and electric motor gets you). So fast are these cars that they have the equivalent of governors on them to keep them from going too fast. But what's really interesting about these cars is how they can do what Indy cars do without consuming nearly as much fossil fuel. On first blush, you think "Hmmm... does that mean an Indy 500 with no pit stops (at least for gas)?"

New wheels for the Partridge Family?

Speaking of green machines, if you or someone you know works at one of the local fast food joints, don't be surprised if, sometime this summer, a big green school bus pulls up to the drive-thru and orders  a few gallons of used cooking oil to go.  That's because it's only about another month before The Big Green Bus hits the road for another one of its cross-country trips that will leave Exxon and Mobile wondering whether maybe it's time to load their underground tanks with Wesson Oil instead of petroleum.  The Big Green Bus runs on vegetable oil instead of gasoline and, with composting and solar energy technology on board (or on the roof as it may be), it's Dartmouth's mobile testimony to renewable energy.

As you can see from the photo (top right), this bus offers project sponsors a bit of visibility. So, here's a challenge to all of you supposedly green vendors out there (Intel, Sun, AMD, Dell, HP, etc.): Put your money where your mouths are and get on the bus!  Literally.

You terrorists can go Quake in your boots

If you're a parent of a teenager like I am, you've probably wondered about the efficacy of a game like Quake. Well, wonder no more.  Another project on display at the Dartmouth exhibition was appropriately named the Virtual Terrorism Response Acadamy.  VTRA takes computer-based training to an entirely new level by immersing emergency responders in a virtual world that's riddled with hazardous scenarios.  The same engine behind Quake drives the user interface to VTRA as "players" learn how to deal with a variety of situations demanding an emergency respond (including weapons of mass destruction).  No doubt, the Quake engine is being used for similar forms of training. But after all these years of watching my son play CounterStrike, I never once thought of the environment as a training platform.  Now, I do and I'm willing to bet its a far bigger market for the Quake technology than Quake (the game) will ever be.

A belt to make Batman proud

If you're thinking Batman's utilty belt is pure fiction, think again.  The kids at Dartmouth showed me a belt that, with the press of a button, turns into the equivalent of a mobile street lamp (yeah, the really bright kind that can light up an entire swath of highway).  Since running at night is sometimes hazardous duty, the primary application they discussed was for runners who need an easy way to illuminate the road in front them.  Given the area that the Night Runner can light up, it gives runners ample time to take evasive action -- the sort of time that a flashlight rarely affords.

Having tripped over a tree root or two (sometimes a cat) in my running days, I can appreciate the need to light the road up.  But I can also imagine other applications. For example, just about any situation where workers wear some sort of headgear that includes a light. Miners for example. Or maybe those guys and gals that dive into those manholes. Or even emergency responders like firefighters.

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