Carnegie Mellon University
October 09, 2020

Students 'Flush Away 2020'

By Michael Henninger

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing and Communications
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To call 2020 challenging puts it mildly. Between the pandemic, a tense presidential election and, for some reason, murder hornets, the American populace has endured a strenuous trip around the sun.

One class at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering may have an answer — to flush 2020 down the toilet.

Assistant Teaching Professor Sarah Christian and lab engineer Brian Belowich designed a project for the students of "Civil and Environmental Engineering Challenges: Design in a Changing World" called "Take the Plunge." The assignment had teams comprising both fully remote and hybrid members design a bridge connected to a ramp capable of sending a bowling ball, representing 2020, into a toilet bowl.
A photo of a student ramp
Sarah Christian, left, and Brian Belowich test one of the student ramps.
A photo of a bowling ball in a toilet
The ramps guided a bowling ball, representing 2020, into a toilet.
The student teams then swapped designs and began building their peers' bridges. The exercise proved to be a cheeky and cathartic way to infuse concepts like managing tradeoffs in constructability, sustainability and cost, and how the build process integrates with design.

Reilly McManus, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering, worked on a team where she and two other classmates based in Pittsburgh worked with three remote students. Remote members of the class used Zoom to attend planning sessions from as far as South Korea. While actually in the classroom, McManus and her classmates maintained 6 feet of separation, wore masks and, when appropriate, face shields.

"Everyone here is doing their part to make sure the coronavirus isn't being spread," said McManus, "I never see anyone on campus without a mask."

McManus and her group approached the project with sustainability in mind, trying to create a bridge that was environmentally and economically sustainable. Their bridge ended up using the fewest beams and weighing the least of all the class projects.

The class was an important factor for McManus in deciding to return to the Pittsburgh campus this fall for hybrid learning.

"Professor Christian definitely takes the time with the students on Zoom to make sure they're getting as good an experience online as we are in person," McManus said. "I personally really wanted to come back to campus and be here able to build. In just a month I've already gotten a lot of hands-on experience."
A photo of Kojo Aduhene
Kojo Aduhene wears a face shield and mask during class.
A photo of students working on their project.
From left, Brett Gold, Reilly McManus and Kojo Aduhene work on their project.
Kojo Aduhene, a teammate of McManus', transferred to Carnegie Mellon and wanted to be in person for his first semester. Aduhene, who studies civil engineering, appreciated the lighthearted approach to learning employed by Christian and Belowich.

"I think they did a really good job of trying to make things focused on the work, but not so serious. We have the room to actually enjoy what we're doing," Aduhene said.

Once the builds were complete, the class gathered to test the projects. Had they been successful in their attempt to send 2020 down the drain?

"Some bridges were faster than others, but they all worked and none of them broke or fell apart," Aduhene said. "I remember the one we had designed deformed a bit. As the ball was going, it got a little bit of air. But it still landed into the toilet. It was kind of nerve wracking and a lot of fun."