STEM Outreach During a Train Delay

STEM Outreach During a Train Delay

As a recent new hire, I spent my first three weeks in the Chicago office for training before heading to my home office in St. Louis. Because I was taking the Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis, I was asked to transport one of our "ball demos" for a career fair in the coming week. The ball demo is a tilt-table which uses feedback control to roll a ping pong ball to any arbitrary point on the surface of an iPad. We typically use the ball demos as a talking point during college career fairs.

Now Departing

The train departed Union Station on time, and I dozed off for about two hours of what was meant to be a 6-hour train ride. However, in Pontiac, IL, the train came to a stop. Freight traffic ahead delayed us, as tends to happen with Amtrack. Passengers were allowed to depart the train and mill about the station, and an attendant announced we were expecting a two-hour delay. 

Making Things Happen

Parents on board would soon face a barrage of "why isn't the train moving?" and are-we-there-yets. Realizing the ball demo is much more interesting than the travel brochures and bathrooms of the small town train station, I decided to fire up the ball demo using the onboard wall power. I informed one of the attendants that if there were any antsy children, she could send them to the car I was on to see an iPad balance a ping pong ball.

While stuck in Pontiac for about four hours, I demonstrated ball-balancing to a handful of children and a few others milling about the train for nearly an hour and a half. Everyone thought the demo was interesting, and I believe I helped spark interest in electro-mechanical systems to a new generation. If nothing else, I made a stressful train delay a little easier for a few parents.

Check out the ball demo in action.

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