CSE students light up campus

The Winter Light Show combines student design and engineering.

Senior Stephen Nixon works on setting up the CSE Light Show on Monday before its premiere on Friday at the Civil Engineering Plaza.

Lisa Persson

Senior Stephen Nixon works on setting up the CSE Light Show on Monday before its premiere on Friday at the Civil Engineering Plaza.

by Thomas Q. Johnson

A mile of extension cords snakes across the grass and brick of the Civil Engineering Building‘s plaza. Intricate networks of computer-controlled switches connect thousands of LED lights placed by hand.

The setup is barely visible during the day, but at the click of a button Friday night, the setup will burst to life in the 20-minute spectacle of light and music that is the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering’s Winter Light Show.

The process to create the light show was long and grueling. Trevor Laughlin, a mechanical engineering sophomore, is the project leader who helped create the show.

“We probably have a solid group of 50 people from all different backgrounds working on it,” Laughlin said. “We use the things that we had last year, and then we ask, ‘What can we add to that?’”

Strings of LED lights, not unlike those found hanging on most Christmas trees, must be hooked to a daisy-chained system of more than 30 computer-controlled boxes with circuit boards designed and partially fabricated by students.

A week before the premiere of the show, Laughlin and his workers were still soldering control mechanisms and untangling lights. Laughlin said it takes about two hours of programming for every 30 seconds of the light show. For the full-time students who put the 20-minute show together, that was a hefty investment.

The show, now in its third year, was conceived by the student group Tesla Works.  Their other projects include a hovercraft, an animatronic barbershop quartet and an app that helps students navigate campus.

With the emphatic support of CSE, Tesla Works has been given free reign over the Civil Engineering Plaza, free Coca-Cola for workers, an office to work from and a budget that lets them order anything they need.

Working on the project is more than just fun; it’s a meaningful professional experience, Laughlin said. Everyone can walk away with something new for their resumes.

“It’s really just making that connection between your curriculum and what it’s all used for,” Laughlin said. “Making that technical connection is very important these days.”

The Light Show also taps into students’ creative energy for the show’s design and music selection. This year, five pieces of music composed and performed by students will serve as the show’s backdrop. One piece is the work of a University of St. Thomas student;  the rest are the creations of University of Minnesota undergraduates.

Individualized studies senior Kurt Weber said he wrote the piece “Frozen North” while noodling around on the piano in seventh grade.

He’s spent years developing pieces on his own and now plans to publish a selection of his compositions. Aside from a few YouTube videos, the Light Show will be his first major exposure.

“Music is what I do for fun,” Weber said. “When I heard [Tesla Works] needed some music, I submitted my stuff. … It’s a great experience for me to have my music performed like this.”

The Light Show will be shown four times a day during a four-day period. After that, everything will be disassembled, rolled up and stored until next year’s performance, when the process is repeated.

As CSE’s website proclaims, it’s the “new tradition on campus.”