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BMCC Engineering Students Beat Top Four-Year Colleges

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Published on Jan 22, 2008

Three students in BMCC's engineering program -- Brian Weeks, Jonas Fields, and Henry Au -- started 2007 with a bang, finishing first in the regional portion of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' (ASME) 2007 Student Design Competition. Now, they've shown they can hold up against the best in the world: the trio finished fifth out of twelve at the international level of the contest.

How It Started

Hurricane Katrina left thousands of people stranded upon rooftops, thirsty and surrounded by water. The problem: Katrina had cut power, leaving them unable to distill the water, and they were unable to rely on filter systems that they weren't sure would remove all of deadly contaminants.

In the fall of 2007, the ASME took this problem to students, challenging them to create a human-powered still, which cleanses water by boiling it, then condenses the steam generated, leaving clean drinking water.

Weeks, Fields and Au separately saw an advertisement for the competition and approached BMCC Professor Mahmoud Ardebili, who then put them together as a team. What happened next surprised not only their competition, but themselves too.

Getting Started

The rules were simple: All energy input must come from a human being; the mechanism should be small enough to be easily transported for emergency use; and it should be easily assembled from its transported configuration.

Weeks, Fields and Au put their heads together and got to work. First, they had to decide which body part to utilize.

"We definitely wanted to use the legs," said Fields," because those are the strongest muscles to use, and we wanted to generate the most amount of power possible. We also wanted to keep it as simple as possible so that if it was sent to an area it would be easy to assemble ... and user-friendly to anyone who needed to ride it."

Making a Human-Powered Water Distiller

After choosing the legs, the group started work on what they would later call Rosebud -- but it wasn't going to be easy.

"We didn't know each other at all ... there was a lot of compromise that went on. We all had our ideas about how to put this thing together," Weeks said. "But once we knew that we wanted to use a bike to generate the power, we took that design and added components to it until it became a human-powered water distiller."

"Rosebud," he said, "is the product of a lot of different attempts at doing the same thing and we've taken the best from each process."

Contest Time

In the regional competition, held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, BMCC was going against nine four-year schools. They included: NJIT, Drexel University, the College of New Jersey, Stevens Institute of Technology, the University of Technology of Jamaica, CCNY, CSI, SUNY Maritime College and the U.S. Naval Academy.

"We practiced a lot and we already knew how much water we could distill," said Au, "but we didn't expect to have a chance to win."

Teams from the other schools must have been scratching their heads, then, when the BMCC team was announced the first-place winners and presented a 3-foot tall trophy.

"A lot of the 4 year schools were looking at us as a community college and expecting us not to do as well as we did," Weeks said.

Then, in November, the trio traveled out to Seattle for the International Engineering Congress and Exposition portion of ASME's competition. Again, they surprised: fifth place out of 12 teams.

Alas, A Team No More

The international stage was as far as these three could take Rosebud.

Au, who came to the U.S. from Hong Kong three years ago, left BMCC last year and has moved on to study electrical engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY). Weeks, who received his Bachelor's degree in Cultural Anthropology from U.C Berkeley and worked as a carpenter for seven years before coming to BMCC, has joined Au at CCNY.

Fields served as a U.S Coast Guard Machinery Technician Second Class for several years before coming to BMCC. He may follow them to CCNY, but has at least one, if not two, more semesters of work here.

All, however, cherish their experience at the only community college in Manhattan.

"BMCC has a lot of workshops and I had to chance to join those workshops and get experience," Au said. "When I moved to the four-year college I already had the advantage of experience. At BMCC, they give you the confidence ... and prepare you before going to the four-year college."

More info: http://www.bmcc.cuny.edu/

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