A flurry of light and sound

The annual Winter Light Show by engineering students began Friday night on the East Bank.

by Haley Madderom

In full daylight, the plaza in front of the Civil Engineering Building looked like a sectioned-off junkyard.

But on Friday evening, the unrecognizable mess of cords and cables disappeared, and the campus tradition lit up the space at the kickoff event for the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering Winter Light Show.

With the push of a button, members of the student group Tesla Works set off two miles of sequenced lights, hypnotizing a crowd of about 200 people.

For the fourth year in a row, the students spent hundreds of hours meticulously engineering the lights to synchronize with a set of five songs.

“The show stays relatively similar, but every year we add more and more lights. So every year gets bigger and bigger, which is very exciting to see,” said chemical engineering junior Ben Gelhaus, who worked on it for his third time this winter.

This year, the light show features more than 100,000 LED lights, a 22-foot tree and, during the upcoming weekend’s displays, an interactive push-button box that will let audience members control the lights themselves.

CSE and CenterPoint Energy sponsored the event, which cost about $6,000, said Trevor Laughlin, president of Tesla Works and former light show project manager.

The lights take about the same amount of energy as a few hair dryers do to function, Laughlin said.

And aside from some final troubleshooting, Gelhaus said, this winter’s display has been the brightest yet.

“It goes back and forth of [whether] we’re ready for the show,” he said. “[But] there were no other glitches, so it was really, really close to perfection.”

Four hours before Friday’s 5:30 p.m. show time, project manager and pre-engineering sophomore Ryan Larson and his team were spread across the plaza area checking cords, circuit boards and signals for any last-minute defects.

Larson said he was relieved as he stood watching with his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles during the night’s final showing.

“It was really nice to see it when it finally came on, kind of the moment of truth,” Larson said. “We had a couple hundred people out here waiting to see it, but it turned on and it worked. … We could [not] have asked for any more than that.”

Hundreds of hours of labor

Some of the spectacle’s five featured songs began with sinister electronic riffs that gave way to more rampant tempos, while others rang out in a steady din of metallic tinkles and pings.

Each song took about 40 hours to pre-program, Laughlin said.

For every beat, students had to command 250 separate channels to either turn on or off in order to send light to the desired location.

That task alone accounts for at least 200 hours of computer labor.

Other students took on the spectacle’s mechanical requirements, creating metallic sculptures and stringing lights to foliage, railings, walls and roofs before cold weather could dampen their efforts.

They also programmed a drill to puncture special designs into plywood, like a sign that said “Welcome to CSE Winter Light Show.” Group members then thread lights through the patterns.

Gelhaus, who in the past has helped solder circuit boards for the light show, said this year he focused on setting up the display.

“It’s fantastic. All the number of hours everyone’s put in, out in the cold … is just so people can see it,” he said.

Members of Tesla Works said weather encumbered last year’s opening night, when temperatures dropped to 5 degrees below zero, Laughlin said. This year, he said the group bought specialized equipment that could function in temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero.

Laughlin said the team’s late nights were well worth it.

“Along with that also comes camaraderie and a lot of good memories, staying up and panicking and trying to get things done,” he said. “We all want to be successful and make the show a success each year.”

Kicking off a two-week run

For each of the three shows Friday, onlookers approached the plaza. Some in the crowd were first-time spectators, like computer science graduate student Abhijeet Gaikwad, who said he made his way over from nearby Keller Hall.

“I see lights — that’s enough for us to get attracted to this place,” he said.

CSE’s Winter Light Show will continue this weekend, with displays at 5:30, 6 and 6:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Last weekend, a group of campus tour guides stopped over to watch the event after a holiday get-together.

Anthropology senior Emily Myers and communications senior Jack Joyce-Lynch said attending the spectacle was on their “senior-year bucket list.”

“As a tour guide, I always talk about the show when I walk by [the Civil Engineering Building],” Meyers said, “so I figured I should probably actually go.”

Coon Rapids resident and CSE alumnus Jason Havemeier said he has attended the light show for the past couple of years.

“It’s neat to see the changes each year,” Havenmeier said. “It would have been a cool project to be a part of.”