Lafayette Students Create High Tech Groundhog Day
Engineering majors come up with a way to give Punxsutawney Phil the year off.
Last year, the animal rights group PETA made the news by suggesting the folks who run the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, PA replace their shadow-seeing rodent with an animatronic replica.
"I think they did it as a kind of a joke," said Chris Nadovich, a Lafayette College engineering professor.
Still, it got him thinking, about things like ethics, and technology, and how the former can't simply follow the latter.
And from those thoughts came a project for the students in his electric and computer engineering lab: create that animatronic groundhog, using only analog equipment.
That was last year, but with Groundhog Day 2011 a week away, the school got those students together again Wednesday morning to show off their work: a device that could detect shadows, then display them on an oscilloscope, where they showed up as yellow wavy lines.
It was a project that lasted much of the semester, with the students finding themselves in the lab at 3 a.m. (and growing to hate the stuffed groundhogs they used, borrowed from the professor's daughter's menagerie). They joked that they were like the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day, repeating the same day over and over.
Would it work at Punxsutawney?
Sure, said Will Schlansker, one of the students. But it may not be as entertaining as seeing the real Phil in action.
Which brings us to the second half of the class project: After the devices were complete, Nadovich had the students take sides for and against the use of a live groundhog.
Schlansker was on the "for" side. He'd made a utilitarian argument: the groundhog makes a lot of people happy, and Phil is treated pretty well.
"It's not like he's some mistreated prisoner," Schlansker said.
Other students, like Sam Friedman, argued that "we don't have to disturb an animal in the natural habitat" when an electronic alternative is available.
The next step would be to turn the device the students made -- currently a little box with some wires -- into an actual animatronic groundhog. But that would take more time and funding than would be available for a class project, Nadovich said.
And what does he think about the groundhog debate?
"Personally, I think Punxsutawney Phil is treated pretty well," Nadovich said.
That doesn't mean he's against the idea of some tech company hiring his students to build a robot groundhog.