BGR Entertainment Challenge showcases creativity on campus

Boiler Gold Rush students gather around the “A Warm Light for All” art installation

A Boiler Gold Rush orientation group interacts with Wan Kyn Chan’s “A Warm Light for All,” an art installation that responds to sound by growing warmer and brighter. Chan created the piece as part of the inaugural BGR Entertainment Challenge. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

Engineering, art projects add to fun of Boiler Gold Rush orientation

Wan Kyn Chan happily recalls being a member of “that” group during Boiler Gold Rush when he first arrived at Purdue as an undergraduate student.

You know the one.

The envy of all the other orientation groups. Seemingly having more fun than everyone else. Building friendships that could propel the group members into their freshman year and, in some cases, through their entire time in West Lafayette and beyond.

“We had a great BGR leader, and we had a great local and international group that really stuck together,” says Chan (BSME ’19, MSME ’21). “It was incredible because ours was that group that you would want to join. That made itself apparent when people started leaving their group and bringing friends from other groups into our group.”

The BGR orientation program was a foundational experience for Chan, creating an immediate sense of belonging at a university located more than 9,000 miles from his home in Singapore. Chan remained friends with four or five of his orientation group members throughout his undergraduate experience and still shares life updates with them after moving back to Singapore upon completing his master’s degree last December.

“I guess I was really blessed,” he says.

So, when Chan decided to participate in this year’s inaugural Boiler Gold Rush Entertainment Challenge, of course the installation he created would convey the same warm welcome to the newest Boilermakers that he received upon arrival.

In founding the Entertainment Challenge, BGR leaders and their partners from Purdue’s Fusion Studio for Entertainment and Engineering invited campus partners to create pieces that could enrich new students’ experiences during select BGR events. They offered $2,500 in project funding and accepted three proposals – one of which was Chan’s “A Warm Light for All,” a 9-foot-high, interactive light installation displayed throughout BGR week.

The installation reacts to sound sensors to feature pulsing light that becomes warmer and brighter in proportion to the number of people gathered around or walking by the piece.

“You’re trying to build community, and you’re trying to create that same sort of ambience of a campfire,” says Mary Pilotte, co-director of Fusion Studio and director of engineering education undergraduate degree programs IDES and MDE. “Everyone loves to gather around the campfire and tell stories. It’s a place where memories are made.”

As work on “A Warm Light for All” progressed, Chan recognized how its themes of warmth, community and connection within a physical space fit perfectly within the BGR ethos.

Those tones are especially important to Craig Johnson, Purdue’s director of orientation programs, who has worked with BGR since 2015 and is always on the lookout for new ways to help students connect with their new university community.

BGR, which took place Aug. 16-20, provides an immersive orientation experience that universities across the country try to emulate. Johnson says constantly evolving to meet the needs of each new collection of freshmen keeps BGR a model program.

Increasingly, that means providing entertaining experiences for BGR participants that are seemingly exclusive and individualized.

“I’ve found myself over the last couple of years looking to outside festivals that are of similar size and thinking about how we can bring elements of entertainment to this to facilitate things like community building and belongingness and do it in a fun, interactive and engaging way so that students feel part of this,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s search for a campus partner to assist in this effort brought him to Fusion Studio and co-directors Pilotte and Rich Dionne. Founded in 2020, Fusion Studio leverages Purdue’s interdisciplinary strengths to create a conversation space where educators, practitioners and industry partners can push the live entertainment industry forward.

After Johnson reached out about potentially collaborating, Dionne and Pilotte were intrigued by the opportunity to widen new students’ perspectives. Since Purdue is a STEM-oriented university, many newcomers are future engineers, scientists and technologists. However, they may be totally unaware of opportunities where Boilermakers can apply creativity to their technical work.

“What excites me is the opportunity for incoming first-year students to see the work of their peers and the faculty around them and engage with it in a real way,” says Dionne, chair of theatre and associate professor of practice in the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance. “To play with it, to touch it, to interact with it and to recognize that you could be part of that is a whole different thing in this field of engineering and entertainment. And so, to provide those kinds of opportunities, right away in that first week, is really exciting and interesting. It maybe changes the way that incoming students think about their relationships with faculty and with research.”

Johnson agrees, adding, “In all of these projects, there’s an opportunity for students to look at them and say, ‘I didn’t know that the thing that I might want to do with my life could be incorporated in this way.’ I think that’s a really neat opportunity to get students thinking differently about how they want to engage in their academics at Purdue.”

BGR participants read a clue for the “A Journey Through Purdue” puzzle tour.

In all of these projects, there’s an opportunity for students to look at them and say, ‘I didn’t know that the thing that I might want to do with my life could be incorporated in this way.’

Craig Johnson Director of orientation programs

Another Entertainment Challenge creator, Andres F. Arrieta, finds it equally exciting to subtly convey an important message to new students who will soon be absorbed in challenging subject matter. While interacting with Arrieta’s “Bistable Embrace,” BGR participants played with an installation that likely reminded them of a children’s “pop-it” fidget toy, but the piece was also capable of delivering a lesson on scientific basics.

“In our research, we try to connect these very simple, fundamental aspects of how things work, but simplicity often hides complexity,” says Arrieta, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of Purdue’s Programmable Structures Lab. “We find them in very different applications or settings. This, to me, was the perfect opportunity to do that with something that is very fun that now has become very popular.”

Fellow Entertainment Challenge creator Davin Huston had a similar goal, not just with the “A Journey Through Purdue” project that he led but in all of his instruction.

The associate professor of practice crosses disciplinary boundaries by teaching in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute’s School of Engineering Technology and in the Department of Theatre. And yet he always brings the same entertaining approach to his courses in an effort to make the subject matter accessible to all.

“My research is basically, ‘How do I get students to do cool things and probably learn at the same time?’ Huston says. “So much more learning takes place when you’re having fun, not really knowing you’re learning. For example, I do that with programming. Like, ‘Look, you learned to code. Ha ha, I got you. You started this class hating programming. But you did something fun and also learned how to code. I got you.’ I love that part of the job.”

The collaborators from BGR and Fusion Studio viewed the inaugural Entertainment Challenge as a pilot, leaving open the possibility of working together again for next year’s BGR or on some other project. Before BGR even started, they were already excited about how their partnership might evolve in the future.

“I would already call this a success because of the relationship we’ve built with the BGR team,” Pilotte says. “That’s just been amazing. And what’s not to love about the work they’re doing around student wellness and creating community? Anything we can do to bolster that message and help reinforce it is good. In terms of continuing on, we’re laying a foundation – a relationship with them and a relationship with other faculty.”

What’s not to love about the work [BGR is] doing around student wellness and creating community? Anything we can do to bolster that message and help reinforce it is good.

Mary Pilotte
Co-director, Fusion Studio for Entertainment and Engineering

And as a result of their budding relationships, new Boilermakers had a more enjoyable BGR experience. Some might have even contemplated how a personal interest could influence their career path after interacting with an Entertainment Challenge piece that was both creative and highly technical.

“The magic of Disney World isn’t that it’s a cartoon place,” Dionne says. “In my mind, what people find amazing about it is this intersection of technology and the arts in some way. Maybe it’s something you don’t know how to do, but clearly somebody does, and that’s amazing. That’s why everybody likes it, and the more that we can make room for that exploration here, the better.

“If you think about it, what a great proxy for Purdue. That is what we are. We are a place where an interesting, fascinating, amazing, creative endeavor is happening – and there’s engineering to it. That’s happening all across Purdue, so why not acknowledge it more broadly? Why not get more people involved, and why not celebrate it?”

Meet the creators of the BGR Entertainment Challenge entries and learn more about the three pieces:

A student experiments with the “Bistable Embrace” art installation.
A student experiments with the “Bistable Embrace” art installation that Andres F. Arrieta and Wan Kyn Chan created for the BGR Entertainment Challenge. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

“Bistable Embrace”

Andres F. Arrieta is not concerned that the widespread emergence of “pop-it” fidget toys might make his work seem trivial to some.

Quite the opposite.

“My only regret is that I didn’t patent this or make some sort of company,” says Arrieta, who produced the “Bistable Embrace” installation alongside lead artist Wan Kyn Chan and mechanical engineering undergraduate students Chelsea and Kendal Tinsley.

Since 2006, the mechanical engineering professor has experimented with objects – like pop-it toys that can be found on the shelves at any discount store – that illustrate the concepts of bistability and multistability. That is, they are able to deform and maintain more than one stable shape.

Where one passerby might have played with “Bistable Embrace” at BGR and identified it as a 5-by-5 wall of foam domes that morphed and changed as they were pushed in and out, another might have understood the underlying scientific principles at work were anything but child’s play.

“When we started, these pop-its were not around, but now they are ubiquitous,” Arrieta says. “Whenever I’m starting a talk where I talk about pop-its or slap bracelets, people say, ‘OK, I’ve played with that.’ My hope is that some of the students would see this and say, ‘Oh, this is fun. In engineering, this is another thing that you can do with these mechanics.’ If I can get 3% of people who see these to understand that deep connection, that is my real motivation.”

In reality, these toylike pieces are an easily understandable introduction to the more complex ways he and his colleagues use to explore multistability. For example, a master’s student in the Programmable Structures Lab researched the mechanical advantages of multistable, load-bearing actuators. Another examined the increased efficiency in turbine engines that used shape-adaptable morphing structures capable of reducing flow leakage.

Arrieta says the seemingly simple “Bistable Embrace” can provide insight into how magnets work or even explain, by way of analogy, underlying concepts in quantum computing, thereby delivering a lesson on connections between scientific principles that he believes is essential for Purdue engineers to learn.

“I want them to know, ‘Look, you really need to learn a few rules and a few methods, and then you’re able to apply it to any type of process that is physical,” Arrieta says. “Students who come to Purdue should be aware that they have the tools to understand complex stuff. They clearly have the ability to do it and the talent. They just don’t realize that what they’re learning is so connected.

“They say, ‘I have 50 different courses in my degree. Everything seems to be its own thing,’ and they struggle. We need to articulate to them that it’s only a few things that you actually need to learn. What you need to learn is to connect it and build on it.”

If a shape-shifting wall of foam domes can help new students process that lesson, all the better.

“I would like to really connect to the very well-known ethos that Purdue people make things right,” Arrieta says. “Being a maker doesn’t exclude being, also, a learner of fundamentals. I think our installation is proof of that. Without the understanding of fundamentals, we wouldn’t have been able to make this very fun thing. I would like to give that message to the students.”

“A Warm Light for All”

Wan Kyn Chan has always been fascinated by people’s relationships with the space around them – an interest he traces back to childhood.

“I had an affinity for it because when I was growing up in Singapore, space was in short supply,” he says. “I realized that a lot of people don’t cherish the space. We just take it for granted.”

Throughout his early education, the importance of community was a theme that repeatedly surfaced in Chan’s school lessons. As someone who grew up dreaming of ways to meld art and design with engineering and technology, many of his artistic projects have explored themes involving space and community.

His solar-powered light installation, “A Warm Light for All” – almost 9 feet tall and weighing in at more than 500 pounds – was on display on Memorial Mall during BGR 2022. Participants may have noticed that its light grew warmer and brighter depending on the number of people walking by and their proximity to the installation.

“I wanted to create this interactive piece that was subtle enough for people to not completely realize that the light would morph and change with the interaction,” Chan says. “But for people who developed a sensitivity to space, they would pick it up. Or with the number of people around the installation, the light would pick it up, and then it would create this reciprocal relationship between the installation and the surrounding people.”

Chan relied upon student partners from Purdue’s Electronic and New Media Art Club – a group led by William LaFreniere and Jack Jones – to complete construction on the project after he earned his master’s degree and moved back to Singapore in May 2022. He hopes their work helped instill a sense of belonging among the newest Boilermakers and inspired them to imagine new creative pathways that they may not have previously considered.

“My goal was to meld these two seemingly separate areas [art and science], two ends of the academic spectrum, into a harmonious hybrid of such,” Chan says. “The main goal was to not only inspire people and allow them to see that it’s possible to join these two, but also drive people to pursue more creative endeavors.”

“A Journey Through Purdue: An Interactive Timeline”

The members of Purdue’s Theme Park Engineering and Design student group considered several concepts for a BGR Entertainment Challenge project – including an escape room – before arriving at a premise that could be both fun and informative for new students.

“We came up with the idea of, ‘What can we do to help new students get to know campus?’” says Davin Huston, the group’s faculty adviser and an associate professor of practice in the School of Engineering Technology. “BGR’s entire point is integrating them into Purdue’s culture and also helping them understand where everything is located. And so we figured, ‘OK, we’ve got a challenge here.’”

Their solution? “A Journey Through Purdue: An Interactive Timeline,” a puzzle tour that took participants to more than a half-dozen prominent locations on campus. At each destination, students encountered a column built to look like the Purdue Bell Tower. On each clockface was a screen with a QR code. By scanning the code, they reached a website that featured a clue to a Purdue-centric question they had to answer. By answering correctly, they could advance to the next location. Participants won a prize by successfully completing the task at each location.

Huston said a range of similar tours inspired the concept, from Purdue’s Campus Tree Trails tours to the search for “Hidden Mickeys” at Walt Disney World.

Huston and roughly a dozen students – including structural and mechanical designer Kevin Simonson, cryptography and electrical designer Jackie Hanlon and electrical and software designers Phil Schroeder and Conner Reinholt – participated in the ideation and execution of the project. Their collaboration produced a polished finished product that operated on a combination of solar and battery power.

“It’s turned into something phenomenal and producible and affordable,” Huston says. “We figured out how to make it look great and not spend tons of money.”

A bonus, he says, was that the puzzle tour allowed students to tour campus at their own pace. If they wanted to assemble a group of new BGR friends and race from spot to spot, they could do so. But for those who wanted a break from the high-energy BGR schedule, the puzzle tour allowed them to get a breath of fresh air and take a fun, relaxing walk around Purdue.

“It’s not meant to make you break down and say, ‘Oh no, another thing,’” says Huston (BS electrical engineering technology ’04, MS electrical engineering technology ’07). “They’re busy. They’re human. They might also be homesick. I know this because 23 years ago, I was in their position, and I was homesick. I think there’s no better cure for that than to be able to calmly walk outside and you take a walk and you breathe. I wanted to create something that was like a calming station because I know I needed calm to function at that age.”

The project fulfilled its immediate purpose by adding to the BGR experience, but Fusion Studio co-director Rich Dionne was equally excited about how the concept could expand to greet wider audiences. Following the lead of theme-park attractions like “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Universal Studios and “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” at Disney Parks and Resorts, Dionne envisions Purdue someday offering immersive campus tours that provide an unforgettable welcome to visitors.

“Maybe it gets to a place where, as part of the tour, you get a Purdue hammer and you have to hit a nail or a railroad spike and that causes something to happen, where you’re interacting now with the world that is Purdue as part of your tour for prospective or incoming, first-year students,” Dionne proposes. “That’s really exciting to me, where you’re not just reading a plaque, but you’re interacting with the world in some way.

“I think this is a really interesting foundation for something like that, where it’s a more immersive way of experiencing the physicality of Purdue.”