Brains vs. blizzards: Harvard students take on snow removal
Brains vs. blizzards: Harvard students take on snow removal Students walk to class in sub-zero temperatures at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
Brains vs. blizzards: Harvard students take on snow removal
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Winter is bearing down anew. And Harvard University students have been engineering new ways to deal with it.
Eighteen juniors representing several engineering disciplines in professor David Mooney's problem-solving and design class spent the fall semester inventing a robotic remote-control rooftop snowblower, a superheated icicle cutter and a freeze-resistant doormat.
The projects grew out of meetings with the university's Facilities Maintenance Operations department. It is responsible for clearing snow from the 5,000-acre campus. And it was particularly challenged last winter. That is when the Boston area got more than 9 feet of snow. Harvard shut down several times. It was the first time campus closed since the infamous Blizzard of '78.
"Don't get me wrong, FMO did an impressive job last winter," electrical engineering major Peyton Fine said. "But we wanted to somehow improve their operations. We wanted to make it easier to get around campus safely and keep workers safe."
A major problem is clearing snow off Harvard's many old and flat-roofed buildings. The main Cambridge/Boston campus has about 500 buildings.
The students retrofitted a commercial snowblower.  It can be controlled using a modified video game control pad. It can be operated remotely, even from inside a nice, warm office. It eliminates the need for workers to spend time on slippery rooftops where they risk falling.
Another potential hazard for workers is clearing icicles off eaves. The students' research found that about 150 people a year are killed in the U.S. trying to clear snow and icicles off rooftops.
For that problem, the students came up with a special device. It resembles a roof rake. It has a long handle topped with a Y-shaped head that holds a super-heated wire.  It can quickly slice through the thickest of icicles while the operator stands on firm ground.
The students also developed a durable freeze-resistant hydrogel mat. It can keep doorways and steps ice free.
The class was one of the most practical junior bioengineering major Cassie Lowell has taken.
"It's a unique class in the sense is that we're given a lot of freedom," she said. "It was a really hands-on, real-world experience."
The students and Mooney stress that all their inventions are prototypes. They won't be deployed on campus this winter. But some of the students plan to keep working on them. The goal is to one day make them commercially available.
Fine said he'd love to walk into a hardware store in the future and see the items for sale.
"Just like someone has a leaf blower in their garage, we'd love to see someone have an icicle cutter in the garage one day," he said.

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Assigned 184 times
Why are these problems more relevant for Harvard students than students at the University of Miami?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • TehyaWhite-Ste
    2/03/2016 - 01:00 p.m.

    The problems are more relevant for Harvard students because they actually get snow and have to deal with that type of weather.

  • melissaj-Ste
    2/03/2016 - 04:05 p.m.

    The probability of a Harvard student experiencing icicles and multiple feet of snow is higher than a student at the University of Miami. In fact, the probability for Harvard to have weather below 40 degrees is higher. All of these inventions created by students at the school sound amazing. It reinforces the standards that Harvard sets to get into the school in the first place. I'm excited for some of their inventions to reach stores older folks have an easier time shoveling and have it take less time.

  • ben0424-yyca-byo
    2/03/2016 - 10:01 p.m.

    I think that making these inventions is a good advance in society. These are great inventions and I won't have a use for them because I live in LA, but for other places, it would be great. Because of the many inventions, people, and other reasons, Harvard would be one of my choices of a college.

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    2/03/2016 - 11:24 p.m.

    The Harvard University might have been wanting to be using the inventions that the students had made that will be able to be an easier job to be doing than doing it with out the inventions that the students had made. The inventions that the students had made might have been able to change things the way that people used to be doing without using the inventions that the students had made to be an easier job to be doing. The students might have been able to get less deaths than using with the inventions because people had not been careful when they weren't using the inventions. People might have been able to be more careful than the people had been doing to remove all the snow from the Harvard University that students are able to get more easier job than doing without the inventions.
    Critical Thinking Question: Why are these problems more relevant for Harvard students than students at the University of Miami?
    Answer: Because snow is the problem for Harvard University but the University of Miami aren't having problems with the snow because it is too warm to be snowing.

  • samanthas-1-ste
    2/04/2016 - 11:25 a.m.

    Harvard is in Boston, so they get a lot of snow during the winters. Miami doesn't get snow, so these problems are more for the Northeast than South.

  • 13loredo,destiny-pai
    2/04/2016 - 12:27 p.m.

    It was okay. I guess....

  • 5cruz,sanson-pai
    2/04/2016 - 12:28 p.m.

    because it has snow unlike Miami

  • 12lattany,anthonie-pai
    2/04/2016 - 12:31 p.m.

    Theres alot of snow in harvard

  • allisonz-612-
    2/04/2016 - 01:30 p.m.

    It is more relevant for Harvard than Miami because Miami is in Florida it rarely snow in Florida because they are close to the gulf stream.Harvard, Massachusetts is close to New York where you get a lot of snow.

  • katelynh-hol
    2/04/2016 - 05:50 p.m.


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