Curious kids are in for a delightful shock

Rice University students jolt imaginations with Children's Museum of Houston exhibit

Rice University students, from left, Sammi Lu, Rachel Nguyen, Saad Yousaf and Karen Vasquez with the exhibit they designed and built for the Children's Museum of Houston to demonstrate the principles of electromagnetism. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Rice University students, from left, Sammi Lu, Rachel Nguyen, Saad Yousaf and Karen Vasquez with the exhibit they designed and built for the Children's Museum of Houston to demonstrate the principles of electromagnetism. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

In lieu of a dry lecture on the wonders of electromagnetism, a team of Rice University students built a contraption that combines elements of an automotive solenoid and a pinball machine for the Children's Museum of Houston.

“The idea is to get the kids curious and make them wonder, How does that projectile move up the tube? What makes the light go on? It’s not magic. It’s electromagnetism,” said Rachel Nguyen, a sophomore in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at Rice and a member of the design team that built a device for the museum's "Shocks and Jolts" exhibit.

Assembled in Rice's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, the exhibit was installed in the museum in May. The museum calls the Rice creation the Electromagnetic Launcher. The interactive device is simple in design: Two transparent plastic tubes are angled at 45 degrees on a laser-cut wooden frame. In each tube are three coils of copper wire connected to a power source, with small lightbulbs in place at the top of the tubes.

By pushing the first of three buttons, each corresponding to one of the coils, a museum visitor electrifies the first coil and releases the magnetized projectile up the tube. As the projectile reaches the second coil, the object is to press the second button and electrify the coil, which in effect becomes a solenoid and sends the object further up the tube. The same follows with the third button and coil. If the museum visitor times the button-pressing successfully, the projectile will reach the top and turn on the light, and the visitor wins the game.

“The coils become temporary magnets. The direction of the coils determines the poles of the magnet,” said Nguyen, who grew up in Houston and visited the Children’s Museum as a child.

“The biggest thing we wanted to get across was the relationship between electricity and magnetism, but doing it in a fun way,” said Saad Yousaf, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. All team members are sophomores who met their freshman year in the Introduction to Engineering Design class taught by Rice lecturer Matthew Wettergreen. The other team members are Sammi Lu and Karen Vasquez, both in bioengineering.

Keith Ostfeld, the museum’s director of digital learning, explained how the Electromagnetic Launcher complements the rest of the "Shocks and Jolts" exhibit.

“We discovered kids typically aren’t introduced to electricity in school until the fourth or fifth grade, and then they don’t study it again until high school," Ostfeld said. "It’s a real shame because kids live in a world of electricity and electronics and are fascinated by it. So we created a space where families and kids of any age can immerse themselves in electrical explorations.”

The museum attracts 800,000 visitors each year. The team sponsors are Rice alumna Carolyn Huff and Harrell Huff, and the students’ faculty adviser is Gene Frantz, professor in the practice of signal processing in ECE.