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Time after time

(January 27, 2000, Gazette)

By Susen Johnson

When Andy Fisher got the news just before Christmas, he smelled opportunity. CTV’s morning news program Canada AM had called the engineering faculty just as exams were ending and invited it to participate in a live New Year’s Eve telecast at Greensleeves pub on George Street. They wanted MUN’s student engineers to construct a time capsule – a container that would last for 100 years, until Jan. 1, 2100. Were they up to the challenge?

The coordinator of the Manufacturing Technology Centre, Mr. Fisher saw an opportunity to give students hands-on experience and a chance to showcase the school’s talent in a national forum.

“We always like a challenge,” he said. “And if we get a chance to highlight the capabilities of students while we’re at it, then that’s always a positive thing.”

Student engineers Dave Bursey and Adam Reid were enlisted for the project, and began researching ideas for their container on the Internet, but scant information from the client and limited resources – financial and otherwise – ‘chewed up’ more extravagant plans.

With less than two weeks to go and the clock ticking, the students were off and running.

“It was a bit rushed,” Mr. Bursey admitted. “They just had a whole list of things they wanted to put in it. They said ‘something from The Museum of Civilization and something from The Ontario Science Centre’. Of course, we had no idea how big these objects were going to be.”

Mr. Reid adds, “Two weeks is pretty short but it is a ‘real-world’ problem ... you have a deadline, you have constraints, and you have a product that has to be finalized. It was pretty exciting.”
As Mr. Fisher explains, these kinds of design challenges are crucial to engineering education.

“It gets students into this idea that as soon as you get out of here and you get away from a textbook, things will be vague, and your job is to bring clarity to the problems.”

Mr. Bursey and Mr. Reid’s first goal was to find the materials they needed, scrounging around the labs for whatever was left over from other projects. Finding a big sheet of aluminum in one of the labs over the holidays was a stroke of luck, and, with welding services donated by Technical Services, the students created a four-foot tall aluminum cylinder with a ‘pie pan’ top, two handles, and logo placards.

When the time came to deliver the big shiny can, the client was very pleased – and so were the engineers.

“They seemed amazed at it,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Bursey agreed, “They were really impressed with it; it was bigger than they expected it to be.”

During the telecast, Canada AM’s host Jeff Hutcheson filled the capsule almost to the lid with items like an autographed Wayne Gretzky jersey, CDs, a cell phone, a bottle of beer, a Hudson’s Bay blanket, maple syrup, a basketball, a videotape of the 1972 Canada Cup match, and some newspapers.

Mr. Bursey and Mr. Reid signed the underside of the lid just before sealing the capsule.

“That was a last-minute idea,” Mr. Reid said. “We were sitting down looking at it and we said, ‘Hey, we should sign our names to this.’”

As Mr. Bursey put it, “Everyone kind of wants to leave a mark behind, and now I know my name’s going to be around for at least 100 years anyway.”

The engineers are pleased that they had even this small part to play in the big millennial celebrations. But what do they think will happen on Jan. 1, 2100, when the capsule gets opened?
“We wouldn’t want to be the guys who open it,” Mr. Bursey said, laughing.

“Newsprint’s pretty acidic, so that could cause a few reactions,” said Mr. Reid. “And that could be a pretty nasty bottle of beer when it’s opened.”

But he’s quick to add, “It’d be nice for our grandkids to open it, if it’s still around.”