ORONO, Maine — Ben Nichols needs to know something about engineering since he wants to fly jet airplanes when he grows up.
Nichols, 11, of Hermon on Saturday learned a little bit about the many ways engineering is essential to life in the 21st century at the 12th annual Engineering Expo at the University of Maine. He was one of the 1,000 or so students who visited the more than 60 exhibits set up in the Field House.
Many of the exhibits allowed people to try out different engineering skills on small projects, applying principles used on large-scale ones. The Advanced Structures and Composites Center helped attendees put together model wind turbine platforms.
The center recently received a two-year $7.1 million grant to test-design floating platforms to hold wind turbines off the coast of Maine. The exercise Saturday allowed participants to use a pinwheel, foam cubes, plastic bottles, wooden dowels and other materials to design their own models of those platforms.
Each completed platform was placed in a tank of water and a fan was used to create wind to determine its buoyancy and stability. Each design also was rated on its visual appearance.
In addition, the cost of manufacturing the components used in making each platform along with the carbon-offset cost of materials was calculated to score every design.
Peter Drown of Bangor is an economics major who works with the center. He said Saturday that the “cool-looks factor” was outweighing the “cost factor” in most entries including Nichols’.
“That’s OK because they’re being very creative,” Drown said.
Wind and creativity also were important components in the sailboats students could make at the 4-H booth, where Alisha Targonski of the Maine Cooperative Extension program was helping youngsters whose boats just sat in front of a large fan.
“I don’t tell them how to fix the problem,” she said. “I ask guided questions such as ‘Why don’t you think it will sail?’ ‘Why do you think your mast is leaning in a certain direction?’ and ‘What’s the best way to stabilize that mast?’”
At an exhibit about electricity, a group of middle school students from Gardiner huddled in front of a table on which two large round balls sat. One girl grasped the ball with her right hand and a fellow student’s hand with her left. Other students soon joined to form a chain. Suddenly, the students jumped and broke hands.
“It went all through me,” Adam Fortier-Brown, 13, of Randolph said of the electrical current that has just passed through him and his classmates. “I felt it in my hand, arm and head. It’s not like a burn, it’s more like a tingle, and it’s kind of scary.”
Not scary enough to keep him and many of the other visitors from lining up to get zapped more than once.
The expo, titled Brain Power 10 and co-sponsored by the Maine Engineering Promotion Council, culminated a week of activities celebrating Maine Engineers Week. It is held in Orono during in even-numbered years and at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham in odd-numbered years.
The event was designed to introduce children to many different fields under the heading engineering, to let them know that Maine firms want and need engineers, and to recruit students to programs available in Orono and Gorham.
“Maine is not producing enough engineers to replace those who are retiring,” Chet Rock, associate dean of the college of engineering, said two years ago to explain how the program got started.
Rock said Saturday that about 18 months ago he learned firsthand that the expo is successful.
“Every year we have the seniors in the department speak to the incoming freshman,” he said. “[In the fall of 2008], this senior stood up and said she’d never thought about being an engineer until her dad dragged her to the expo when she was a junior in high school.”
Rock and his colleagues hope there were a lot of children just like her at Saturday’s event.