CSE students illuminate campus

Students create high-tech light show for a 3D outdoor experience

As December moves into its darkest days, one University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering student group is doing its part to brighten up campus by transforming the Civil Engineering Building Plaza into a massive outdoor light spectacle.

Aptly dubbed “Illumination,” the dazzling CSE Winter Light Show is presented by the Tesla Works student group with help from Radio K, and features more than 100,000 LED lights set to University student-composed and performed music. The first show kicks off on Friday, December 7 with a Premiere Party hosted by University student group MinnesoTap in Rapson Hall beginning at 5 p.m. The light show begins at 5:30 p.m. All events are free and open to the public.

Hoping all goes perfectly

“We’re holding our breath that everything will go perfectly,” said Taylor Trimble, a College of Science and Engineering student majoring in computer engineering and originator of the winter light show. “Last year, there were a few glitches in the early performances. This year, plans came together earlier, and we have more backup equipment.”

"We know that students learn more with hands-on projects,” said Tracy Bridge, President of Electric Operations, CenterPoint Energy. “We are happy to support a project that incorporates teamwork, creativity, planning, deadlines and lots of computer programming, and electrical engineering.”

The CSE Winter Light Show will definitely be larger and brighter this year. More than 25,000 lights have been added to the 75,000 that were synchronized a year ago. The light show also includes 400 individual controllable lights and 450 microcontrollers.

In addition to the lights, all of the music was written and performed by University of Minnesota students. After posting an ad in Ferguson Hall, where the University's School of Music is based, asking for students with musical talent to create original compositions, the group selected four pieces.

Featuring student-composed music

Featured in this year’s show are two techno pieces composed by Chris Roebber, a Carlson School of Management student, and Devin Vollmer, a College of Science and Engineering student; a jazz piece composed by Riley Helgeson, a student in the College of Liberal Arts; and a piano composition written by Kellen Parkinson, a student in the College of Liberal Arts.

With a core group of 12 students, more than 70 students have had a hand in making the show a reality. Trimble estimates they have more than 1,000 labor hours invested into the project.

“We started planning last spring, but most of the work has happened during the past three weeks. You can imagine as students we do everything at the last hour,” he said with a laugh.

Although the show will be the second time around for many Tesla Works members, Trimble says synchronizing 100,000 lights with enough music for the 15-minute production is still a challenging task. “You pretty much have to write the software code from scratch, which involves creating a software program for timing the lights and how they will be synchronized to the music,” he said.

Gaining more than technical skills

In addition to the technical skills and knowledge that go into creating the production, the computer hardware and lighting are expensive. “We couldn’t do it without our sponsors. We’re very grateful,” Trimble said.

CenterPoint Energy and the College of Science and Engineering provided financial support.

“We know that students learn more with hands-on projects,” said Tracy Bridge, President of Electric Operations, CenterPoint Energy. “We are happy to support a project that incorporates teamwork, creativity, planning, deadlines and lots of computer programming, and electrical engineering. Plus, the entire community will have some fun and benefit from the students’ work.”

Trimble agrees that the project certainly does result in learning.

“This project can be intimidating—making you realize you don’t know as much as you think you do,” Trimble said. “Applying your book knowledge to a large project like the light show is a whole different thing. They’re not things you learn from a book.”

Preceding the CSE Winter Light Show Premiere Party, the Science and Engineering Student Board (SESB) will host a "Freezin' for a Reason" 5K Run.

“Getting everybody together shows that we can engage with the community and have fun with friends as we head into finals and winter break,” said Stephanie Hornung, College of Science and Engineering mechanical engineering student and Premiere Party coordinator.

For more information about the run, visit z.umn.edu/cse5K .

All proceeds from the 5K Run and sales of food and light sticks at the light show will be donated to the Amplatz Children's Hospital.

Shows run through Dec. 21

After the kick-off on Dec. 7, the CSE Winter Light Show will run Dec. 8, Dec. 13, Dec. 14, Dec. 15, Dec. 20, and Dec. 21, at 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 7 p.m., and 7:30 p.m. For parking information and more details, visit z.umn.edu/illumination2012.