The Charger Blog

Recent Graduate’s Senior Project Reaches Height of Popularity

For an independent study project, Tristan Cowan ’15 built a unique machine that measures a person’s height. The report gained attention in the academic community when it was published, and the experience set the stage for the engineering graduate to pursue a career developing simulation systems.

August 8, 2019

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Image of Tristan Cowan ’15’s machine measures his height.
Tristan Cowan ’15’s machine measures his height.

As a senior, Tristan Cowan ’15, who completed a double major in mechanical and electrical engineering, jumped at the opportunity to participate in an independent study.

Image of Tristan Cowan ’15 and Dr. Cheryl Li.
Tristan Cowan ’15 and Dr. Cheryl Li.

Wanting to build something interactive that could be demonstrated to new students, Cowan designed and built a machine that uses sensors to measure a person’s height. When someone stands alongside the machine, a fan propels a ball upward, which stops and hovers at the person’s height.

“It took us a couple of tries to get a fan that had enough power to shoot the Nerf ball up high enough, so there was some trial and error there,” said Cowan. “There was also some trial and error positioning the sensors to reliably pick up the ball.”

Professor Cheryl Li, Ph.D. says the machine is one of the most interesting projects that students have created, setting the bar – or the ball – high for current engineering students. It is still popular on campus, especially at open houses.

“When students and parents come to visit our lab, we show them Tristan’s machine,” said Li, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “We demonstrate how the device works and also what kind of projects are students are capable of. People love it.”

Cowan’s project has reached heights that extend beyond the University. An independent study report, which detailed the process of building the machine as well as the components that made it a valuable teaching tool, was published in the Computers in Education Journal.

“This project, in particular, was a good segue into my current job, which involves building things that other people use to test their ideas.”Tristan Cowan ’15

Now chief engineer for simulation systems at Bloomy Controls, a Windsor, Connecticut-based company specializing in automated test, data acquisition, and control systems, Cowan is grateful for the opportunities that he had at the University.

“This project, in particular, was a good segue into my current job, which involves building things that other people use to test their ideas,” Cowan said. “There’s mechanical engineering, a lot of electrical engineering, and there’s programming. Interdisciplinary projects like my independent study are a great opportunity to connect these disciplines.”