University of Calgary

From moose treadmills to telescopes

UToday HomeFebruary 14, 2012

By Carly Moran

With 121 years of combined University of Calgary experience, the technicians in the Science Workshop have designed and built their share of interesting and complex products.

For the experienced team—which includes George Kominek, Bill Stillaway, Colin Branner, Todd Willis, Chris Sykes and Jay McIsaac—the process of designing specialized products is the same, whether it’s a small flight mill for bark beetles or a large telescope for the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. They say listening attentively and knowing the right questions to ask is critical.

Addressing all the variables upfront isn’t always easy due to the complexity of products required to introduce advanced concepts in the classroom and conduct innovative research in the lab or field.

“We’ve learned that extracting the right information upfront is key to an effectively designed product,” says Andy Read, manager of the Science Workshop. “We hate to spend many hours designing and building products, only to discover upon completion that it needs to withstand temperatures or other external forces that may nullify its performance. But then again, it is research.”

When this happens, it’s back to the drawing board for technicians—who have to be adept at overcoming setbacks as they design new products to support teaching and research on campus.

The design process is most effective when it is collaborative—with instructors and researchers defining the product’s end use and technicians providing the mechanical and material expertise. Technicians are often required to translate rough sketches into three-dimensional products performing specialized tasks.

“We’re in the business of problem-solving,” says Read. “Our technicians need to be keen to learn, discover and experiment in order to succeed.”

The Science Workshop receives 350-400 work requests a year, many of which deliver specialized products and 80 per cent directly supporting Faculty of Science researchers. The majority of these products are designed without a blueprint.

A few projects underway now include a crystal holder for a cryostat to support quantum science research, and cross-country skis and poles built to measure force and torque in kinesiology research.

“Every day, our technicians face new learning experiences and challenges,” says Read. “Our job satisfaction results from being able to support innovative teaching and research by figuring out how to make something work.”