Nevada Engineers Go to Disneyland

Gabbi Bachard, Andew McNeilly and Nolan Nicholson pose with Mickey Mouse at the 2015 Imaginations competition Jan. 26-30.

Gabbi Bachard, Andew McNeilly and Nolan Nicholson pose with Mickey Mouse at the 2015 Imaginations competition Jan. 26-30.

Engineers have to be good at math and science, but they also have to be creative. This year, three engineering students at the University of Nevada, Reno used both their engineering skills and their creativity in a competition sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering.

Every year, Walt Disney Imagineering challenges college students to design a Disney-inspired experience based on contest rules. This year, teams were asked to re-imagine a transportation system in a major city. The University’s team chose to create an underground transportation system in Chicago featuring four adventure-filled routes to locations throughout the city. Guests would be able to “travel” into classic stories including a sci-fi space mission, a far-away jungle expedition, a deep ocean dive and a historic Chicago adventure.

Out of almost 200 teams, the students were named as one of the six semifinal teams, wining the chance to travel to California to present their project.

“The project is a cool combination of a lot of things we all like: it’s got application of engineering design and creativity to a problem outside what we’re used to, it involved making a lot of hands-on designs and concept art, and it’s tied in with people and themes from Disney,” said Nolan Nicholson, a chemical engineering major and member of the team.

Although the team didn’t place in the top three at the finals, all three team members received paid internships with Walt Disney Imagineering this summer. Walt Disney Imagineering is the creative team that imagines and builds Walt Disney theme parks.

“I am incredibly excited to be working with Imagineering, it’s an opportunity I’ve always wanted,” said team member Gabbi Bachand, who is majoring in chemical engineering and minoring in art.  “I was amazed to learn how much Imagineering blends art and science. Being an engineer and an artist, this environment means the world to me, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

Bridge Survives Simulated Earthquake

The latest earthquake engineering test at the University of Nevada, Reno was a huge success for Professor Saiid Saiidi. After years of testing, Dr. Saiidi designed a bridge using new materials that was able to stand up to a strong simulated earthquake on the University’s shake tables.

bridge on the University of Nevada, Reno shake tables

Dr. Saiidi’s bridge on top of the University’s shake tables

The University owns four shake tables, which are able to recreate earthquakes. By building structures on top of those shake tables, researchers can learn more about how earthquakes damage buildings and bridges. They can also test new designs to find out how well they would perform during an earthquake.

For years, Dr. Saiidi has been testing different materials and bridge-building techniques to identify the strongest way to build a bridge. The successful bridge design uses elastic materials, known as shape memory alloys, that can bend and stretch during an earthquake. Dr. Saiidi is also studying a new way to build bridges that involves building small parts of the bridge at a construction site and then putting them together at the bridge location.

Dr. Saiidi’s work can help keep bridges standing after earthquakes, hurricanes and other storms, which means rescue workers and engineers can get to work helping people recover and rebuild. They can also make bridges faster and less expensive to build or repair.

The first real-life bridge using Dr. Saiidi’s techniques is being built in Seattle, Washington. It will be the first time shape memory alloys have been used in any bridge in the U.S.

The shake tables are part of the University’s new Earthquake Engineering Laboratory, which, combined with the Large Scale Structures Laboratory, make up the biggest, most versatile earthquake engineering facility in the U.S.

Read more about the bridge test on Nevada Today.

UNR Highlights: Desert Bio-Fuels

Dr. Hongfei Lin is studying plants that grow in dry climates that can be used for creating biofuels. This is ideal for a state like Nevada that has plenty of unused space, but not very much water.

Gumweed naturally grows in desert regions like Nevada and has a high oil-content, making it a good candidate for bio-fuel production.

Hongfei and other professors are working together to find ways to create sustainable chemical production, including fuel chemicals, among other things. According to estimates, if Hongfei’s project continues to completion, up to 20% of the US military’s fuel needs can be met using biofuels. It is also estimated that if just 10% of Nevada’s sagebrush lands were used to grow gumweed (one such dry region plant), that 400-600 million gallons of aviation fuel per year could be produced from the gumweed!

A close-up view of the gumweed plant, also known as Grindelia.

Two New Robots Join Robotics Lab

Baxter, an advanced research robot

Baxter, an advanced research robot. Photo Courtesy of Rethink Robotics, Inc.

Researchers in the Computer Science and Engineering Department are excited to have two new robots in their lab this year. The new robots will help professors and students better understand how humans and robots can work together.

Computer scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno are studying how robots can be used in places like offices, factories and hospitals. They want to help design robots that could work alongside a human being. For example, the robots could work on an assembly line in a factory, deliver mail in an office, or help patients in a hospital.

But first, robots have to be able to interact more naturally with humans. Hospitals and factories are busy, crowded places, and robots need to be able to move safely and work without bothering people.

The new robots are larger and more powerful than the other robots in the lab. They are as big as a human adult and are able to move around and pick things up. They also have advanced cameras and other sensors that help them see where they are and what’s around them. All of these features will help the researchers create more realistic situations for robots and humans to interact in.

The PR2 robot

The PR2 robot. Photo courtesy of Willow Garage.

In addition to the two new robots, the robotics lab at the University has a lot of other robots. Students and professors are using the robots for different kinds of  research. They are studying how robots can learn to understand what humans are doing and also how robots can learn to do new tasks by watching humans.

The lab has  11 small human-like robots, one small robotic dog, and more than 20 other robots in use in its research. All together, there are more robots in the Robotics Lab than people!

You can learn more about robots by coming to a College of Engineering Summer Camp or deciding to earn a degree in computer science and engineering.

Reno/Tahoe STEM Events January 2015


Laboratory glassware with liquids of different colorswith reflections on table

Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum

Lots of things are happening at the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum in Reno! Come down to the fun and exciting museum and build your own Solar Bot or DIY pull toy! These fun activities are offered in conjunction with the permanent exhibits at the museum, a list of exhibits can be found here, be sure and check out Da Vinci’s Corner where all ages can learn about how everyday objects work.

Grossology: The (Impolite Science of the Human Body) @ The Wilbur D. May Museum

From January 3 – April 6th families can experience a hands-on exhibit about how the human body works. Every topic from boogers, to vomit, to the human esophagus is covered in this very gross, very interactive exhibit. Children (and adults) will love the animations, games, and interactive exhibits at the museum.

Truckee KidZone museum

Check out the hands-on science experiments in the Exploration Station at the Truckee KidZone museum. Visit their website for detail about happenings each week.

The Women Who Revolutionized Computer Programming

By: Frances Vinlove, Sophomore in the Computer Science & Engineering program at UNR

When we think about computers, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs come to mind, right? They have contributed much to modern computer science, but what about the beginnings of computer science?

Mathematician Ada Lovelace, 1840

Mathematician Ada Lovelace, 1840

Computers have actually been around for a really long time, and women played a very important role in their development. Ada Lovelace, the daughter of poet

Lord Byron, was a mathematician who analyzed Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1842 and was considered the first computer programmer. In 1926, Grete Harmann’s doctoral thesis was published and is considered the foundational paper for computerized algebra. During World War II, women were employed in the Mathematical Tables Project, led by Gertrude Blanch, which did calculations for the Manhattan Project, the Army and the Navy.

Also during this time, Grace Hopper, an American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I and invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. She is also credited with inventing the term “debugging” for fixing computer problems, because there was an actual moth removed from the computer!

Grace Hopper, 1960.

By Unknown (Smithsonian Institution) (Flickr: Grace Hopper and UNIVAC) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s now even a yearly conference called the Grace Hopper Celebration, which is the world’s largest technical conference for women in computing, with more than 4,000 people attending in 2013!

And more recently, Sally Floyd worked on Transmission Control Protocol in 1994, which is an important part of how the Internet works, and Marissa Meyer (now CEO of Yahoo) was the first female engineer hired at Google in 1999.

There are many opportunities for women in computer science. If you’re interested in going to college for computer science, take some math classes in school, and if your school offers computer-related classes, take them! You can also explore on your own – go to and write your first computer program or learn to code! And remember, you can always come to UNR and take a tour of the campus to visit with Professors and students!

UNR Highlights: Storing Hydrogen with Super-Bases

Dr. Chandra Pushes Atoms to their limits.

Dr. Dhanesh Chandra has been working with Lithium Nitride for almost 30 years at UNR. What is Lithium Nitride for you ask? It is an alloy that has very good performance for storing Hydrogen atoms (aka, a “super-base”). This can have many practical uses such as extracting and storing energy from other substances or in heating and cooling applications. Dr. Chandra’s work has been used both at NASA and in the European Planck Space Project to develop cooling systems. Dr. Chandra is currently working to find a new atomic arrangement that can filter Hydrogen atoms from other materials even better than what currently exists. Other work Dr. Chandra is involved in includes using diamond anvil cells and applying several GigaPascals of pressure to atoms, then using X-rays or lasers to monitor the effects of extreme pressure on atoms.

UNR Highlights: Shaking Things Up

Dr. Keri Ryan and Earthquake Research at UNR

Dr. Keri Ryan is fully engaged in researching ways to make buildings more resilient to earthquakes. She believes that if we can find ways to make buildings withstand earthquakes, we can greatly reduce death tolls. Dr. Ryan has done research in Japan so that she could use the largest earthquake simulator in the world, and, despite doing all of her graduate work at Berkeley, chose to work at UNR because of the internationally renowned shake table (earthquake simulator) UNR has right on campus! She is excited for the coming of a new lab that will be able to hold five large-capacity shake tables.