It takes a boatload of student ingenuity and lots of oranges to pull off the Great Navel Orange Race at the University of Central Florida’s iconic Reflecting Pond.
Created 25 years ago by Professor Manoj Chopra and his colleagues, the Great Navel Orange Race is a rite of passage for first-year engineering students. The day-long event features self-propelled boats handcrafted by the students, which are rated on their ability to carry a half-pound orange while racing around the reflecting pond. The boats must follow a compulsory route, aiming to achieve the best time in less than five minutes. Boats that cross the finish line and win their first race heats can participate in the final races of the top 16 teams for the winning title.
Attendance is a requirement for UCF students Introduction to engineering course and represents the first hands-on engineering experience for many first-year students.
Students must design and build their boats to strict rules that present engineering challenges, such as buoyancy, propulsion, material costs, and trade-offs between vessel weight and speed. The rules include a variety of prohibited methods of propulsion, including some non-traditional methods attempted in the past, such as compressed gas, animal assistance, and Mento mints.
Materials for the boats must not exceed $80 and students must submit their receipts to prove it. Many boats on race day are seen with recycled soda bottles and lower cost materials, such as foam, instead of more expensive wood.
“Creating a boat that can carry an orange and race around the reflecting pond is a lot harder than it looks,” says the course instructor Jacqueline Sullivan ’89 ’91MSUCF engineering degree.
Sullivan taught the Introduction to engineering course for six years, and says the goal of the boat race — the lab portion of the course — is to teach students the basic steps of the engineering design process by immersing them in a team project.
“At the start of the semester, students are placed in a team,” Sullivan explains. “Along the way, they learn soft skills and essential technical skills that will help them become more creative and confident engineering students.
The experience reinforces the importance of teamwork, project planning, budget planning, technical writing, engineering graphic design skills, and practical construction skills, such as welding.
“During the ‘trial day’ before the race in the pond, the students encounter technical difficulties with their boats and work hard to overcome these challenges,” says Sullivan.
Mechanical engineering majors Fiifi Baiden and Francisco Perez Green, computer engineering major Vinson Guzman, built their boat out of recycled drink cans and water bottles to keep costs to a minimum.
“We drink this product every day, so we use the containers,” says Perez Green.
They tested the boat in the pool at Perez Green.
“Our boat was going very slow and it started to leak,” he says, adding that the experience helped teammates understand the collaborative engineering process.
“We learned practicality, teamwork and improvisation to achieve our goal,” says Baiden.
Sullivan awards credits to teaching assistants and graduate teaching assistants who play a key role in supporting more than 1,200 students enrolled in the Introduction to engineering Classes.
“A lot of students who have taken the course and loved it come back after a year or two as teaching assistants helping the younger ones – they are good mentors for first year students,” says Sullivan.
Next year’s Great Navel Orange Race will offer former UCF engineers a chance to reconnect with competition, according to Sullivan.
“We plan to involve alumni next year to race and help students with their expenses (through sponsorships) as 275 student teams can go through a lot of soldering, soldering irons, foam, glue sticks and motors.”