University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
Crunch! UD engineering team takes first place in world competition        
     Dressed in sheets they bought at the local Goodwill store
and wearing jewelry made from aluminum foil, four University
engineering students won first place in the 1996 world
competition of the Odyssey of the Mind (OM), an international
celebration of creative problem-solving.
     For this year's event, held during the first week of June at
Iowa State University in Ames, the students designed a fragile-
looking balsa wood structure that weighed just 18 grams but could
hold up to 400 pounds of weight while withstanding the impact of
billiard balls.
     Team members were Sarah Guglielmi, Delaware '96, of
Fairport, N.Y.; Tanya Swiderski, Delaware '96, of Bel Air, Md.,
and Wilmingtonians Ryan Smith and Michael Young, both of whom
will graduate in January. The team was coached by Mark Gruber,
Delaware '78, '81M, a team leader in the DuPont Co.'s composites
     On the way to the world competition, the team mentored a
fifth-grade class working on the same OM problem in its age
division, made a professional presentation to the DuPont Co. and
spent a few anxious moments drying the structure under a hand
drier in a men's room.
     The trip, the presentation and even the first-place
trophy-too tall to fit into any display case in Spencer
Laboratory-were just icing on the cake, according to Michael
Keefe, associate professor of mechanical engineering.
     The important point is that all of this was part of a very
serious mechanical engineering senior design project, which Keefe
and Dick Wilkins, professor of mechanical engineering,
     As wacky as some of it sounds, "first and foremost this was
an academic exercise," Keefe says. In addition to ending up in
togas, the students also earned important individual and team
grades in mechanical engineering, well before the competition
     The problem, titled "Crunch"- because eventually all of the
structures do collapse-was designed by the OM Association Inc., a
worldwide nonprofit organization that fosters creative thinking.
It was one of several OM problems offered internationally to
public and private school students from elementary school through
     More than 1 million students annually compete in some phase
of OM around the globe. In the U.S, depending on where students
live, young competitors may have to win school, regional and
state competitions to qualify for the international event.
College and university teams automatically go to the
international competition known in OM circles as "The Worlds."
     The UD team chose the OM problem as a senior design project
because it presented a challenge and "we liked the way this one
was presented, stressing the aspect of working with the kids,"
Guglielmi says.
     "We liked the aspect of the free trip, too," Young says. "Of
course, we didn't know it was to Iowa at that point," he adds,
with a laugh.
     The mentoring aspect was Gruber's idea. He had maintained
close ties with some of his former UD professors, who readily
accepted his suggestion to have an OM team sponsored by DuPont.
     Gruber, already coaching his daughter, Renee, on a fifth-
grade "Crunch" team for the Oxford (Pa.) Area School District,
volunteered to assist the UD team as well.
     As a former teaching assistant who once helped organize the
mechanical engineering senior design projects, the idea was a
natural, he says.
     In its mentoring role, the UD team visited the elementary
school, discussed various aspects of "Crunch," gave the
elementary students tours of UD engineering facilities and
attended the regional OM competition, where the Oxford team
finished third.
     "The mentoring helped," Gruber says. "The fifth-grade team
was able to increase its 'Crunch' weight from about 30 pounds
last year to 170 this year."
     The UD team, however, put 240 pounds on its structure before
it collapsed in the world competition-not as much as prototypes
had held in test situations on campus.
     The experience of creating the product provided invaluable
hands-on engineering experience, Guglielmi says.
     It gave the members a chance to design the structure on a
computer, factoring in its support ability and ability to
withstand impact; construct several prototypes; deliver oral
presentations; and, of course, complete homework assignments.
     The four team members are now close friends, but they were
merely acquaintances when they were named to work as a team last
fall. Wilkins and Keefe try to put together teams that have a
mixute of gender, race, personalities and grade point averages.
     Although they worked hard from October on, the final product
was finished "the morning we left," Smith says.
     It was hand-carried on the flight to Iowa in a well-packed
shoebox, Swiderski adds.
     In an unexpected twist, high humidity resulted in a weight
gain of half a gram before the final competition began, making
the structure too heavy to qualify.
     "First, we thought we'd have to take off some of the wood,
but a half a gram is a lot of weight," Young says. "We decided to
try to dry it out, so Ryan and I took it in the men's room and
held it under the hand drier. It worked, but we got some really
strange looks."
     Scores from the competition were based on the amount of
weight a structure held, how well it withstood impact and the
creativity of the skit
used to present the idea. That score was added to
a team's points from a "spontaneous" competition, where a
short-term problem had to be solved.
     In the awards ceremony at the end of the week, tension
mounted as second-and third-place winners were announced. Then,
hearing themselves named as the champions, the team members did a
sort of spontaneous "crunch" of their own, collapsing under
Gruber's group hug.
     Even before the competition, Guglielmi and Swiderski had
jobs waiting for them upon graduation-Guglielmi as a process
engineer for W.L. Gore and Swiderski at the Army Environmental
Center at Aberdeen, Md., Proving Grounds.
     Smith and Young have classes to take in the fall, but say
one of their goals is to add the design project and OM victory to
their resumes.  
                                                  -Beth Thomas