This summer I was fortunate to participate in a research internship at the Engineering Science Programme at the National University of Singapore, along with 11 other U of T Engineering Science students, with funding from U of T’s Centre for International Experience. Working in a team with my classmates Judy Shen and Martina Heinelt, we helped NUS Professor Anjam Khursheed in a project focused on the recreation and demonstration of great discoveries in physics and engineering. This project was a collaboration with the Singapore Science Centre, where we did most of our work and whose resources we employed regularly.
Our contribution to the project was the design of three home-made devices which demonstrate key physics/engineering principles. These devices were all designed to be made from readily-available materials so as to be constructible by high school or polytechnic students in hands-on workshops which Professor Khursheed plans to run. The first is a miniature steam engine, made primarily from acrylic and intended to run on compressed air. The engine (a simple oscillating cylinder engine) demonstrates oscillatory motion and shows the basics of the invention that powered the industrial revolution. It can easily be modified to power a vehicle or other machine. The second device is a mechanical pendulum–weight clock, based on the work of Christian Huygens. It demonstrates the nearly simple harmonic motion of a pendulum as well as the fundamentals of gears. The third is a vacuum pump and chamber, which together allow for numerous demonstrations such as the classic Guinea and feather experiment wherein a coin and a feather fall at the same rate in vacuum. Unfortunately, some imperfections in the design, likely surrounding the home-made one-way valve which connects the pump to the chamber, meant that only around an 80% vacuum could be maintained and some further work will be needed here. The acrylic parts of the engine and clock were designed on a computer (the clock gears, in fact, were generated by a Python script) and cut out using the laser cutter at the Science Centre.
As an engineer in training, this internship was extremely valuable in that it gave me hands-on experience in planning, prototyping, and testing devices to a much more involved degree than I had done for previous coursework. The parts for at least one of the devices – the steam engine – will very likely be produced in volume and sold as a do-it-yourself kit at the Science Centre. I learnt much from the process, as well as from Dr Wulf, the director of the CRADLE centre at the Science Centre where we worked, ranging from the different types of screws available to the workings of the laser cutter.
The trip was almost as valuable simply from a cultural perspective. Although the tropical climate made for some discomfort in the first few days, the plethora of inexpensive yet exquisite culinary and entertainment options provided enjoyment for the entire trip. Travelling with a group of other Engineering Science students made for a unique bonding experience. I was also lucky enough to forge new friendships with some local Singaporeans, including NUS engineers. It has been an ongoing goal of mine to experience witness the lifestyle in as many countries as possible, and I am glad to add Singapore to my list.