“Pure Genius”—Engineers versus Wind, Fire and Water

Bobby Miller

This week the contestants designed a portable, one-person shelter that can protect an individual from extreme forces of nature. First, heavy wind blew the shelter to simulate a hurricane. Next, fire blast the shelter. Finally, water was shot at their creations. The judges showed these forces acting upon a miniature building for demonstration. Every element tears away at the structure—the water blast practically destroys it.

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Not even the third little piggy could stand up to the big bad wolf’s giant Super Soaker.

In the Blueprint Challenge, the engineers come up with conventional ideas and some outlandish ones, such as a suit of armor akin to those the ancient Romans wore. However, the judges pick Alison Wong as the runner-up because her design is creative and lightweight. Amy Elliott is, once again, the winner of the Blueprint Challenge. Her design would be like a turtle shell that could fit in a backpack.

This week, the red team consisted of Elliott, Joe Caravella, Gui Cavalcanti, Corey Fleischer and Dan Moyers. The blue team consisted of Wong, Joel Ifill, Tom Johnson, Andrew Stroup and Eric Whitman.

Before sending the teams off, host Kal Penn threw a few more twists into the challenge. This portable shelter must be deployed by one member of the group in under five minutes, and it must fit inside a relatively large backpack. A 180-pound dummy inside each shelter measured the amount of G-force exerted on it, the temperature around it, and its oxygen levels in order to help the judges pick a winner. The teams had three days and $4,000 to complete their projects.

The Red Team’s Preparation

Elliott picked Cavalcanti to be on her team because she wanted to show him her collaborative leading style in contrast to his top-down approach used last week. Cavalcanti, however, continues to show his arrogance by telling the cameras that he’s the “best mechanical designer” and can easily prove he has better ideas than the others do. To his credit, the team does end up following his model, which consisted of 16 folding panels that made a cone shape—the foundation of the shelter. Inside, there is a suspended swinging seat for the dummy, and the panels were wrapped in a thermal-protection blanket.

After picking the design, they build a functional prototype that impresses the judges. At first, Elliott is impressed with how well the team is working together and Cavalcanti is being more of a “team player” this time around. Moyers even says that this is favorite team so far—he hasn’t gotten in anyone’s face.

During the last few minutes of the final day, the team is struggling to fit everything inside the bag. Moyers is so nervous that he actually leaves and sits alone, his forehead pressed up against a wall. However, they manage to fit everything inside the bag, and Elliott zips it up in literally the last second of workshop time.

The Blue Team’s Preparation

Like Elliott, Wong takes a collaborative approach in managing her team, but Johnson believes they are taking too long as they discuss the pros and cons of everyone’s designs. Johnson believes he has to step up and be the “ass kicker” to get the team moving. Their final design combines Wong and Johnson’s ideas. It’s an octagonal tent made of a steel frame. The dummy sits in a hammock seat, and his weight should help stabilize the structure in wind and water. The low-dome tent is coated with a canvas covering and heat-resistant material.

The team divides up tasks and gets to work. Since most of their materials don’t arrive until the end of the second day, Johnson believes they will not complete their challenge. However, he’s surprised to find that everyone works hard and as a team the final day, bringing everything together. Although Johnson’s not for it, Stroup convinces the team to add an inflatable raft, which is filled with carbon dioxide, to the base of the tent. This is to help absorb the force of the wind and water. They get everything assembled and fit it inside the bag.

The Test: Save the Dummy

The teams feel confident as they prepare to have their designs tested. Moyers of the red team and Stroup of the blue team set up their respective shelters. Although Moyers finishes first, Stroup completes his team’s shelter with over a minute to spare.

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The blue team is fired.

First, the heavy wind is blown at each team’s shelter. Although the cloth on the shelters went up and down , and the overall structure shakes a little, both teams survive the wind just fine. I’m happy to see that the teams are starting to build stuff that works.

But, the blue team’s shelter doesn’t go through the fire and flames as well. Some of the flaps at the bottom of the structure came untucked, allowing smoke and fire to get inside. To make matters worse, it seemed that the canvas covering under the heat-resistant material had caught on fire. However, the red team is able to endure the fiery trial just fine thanks to its firm, thermal-protection blanket—nothing gets inside.

Then the water jets came into play. As soon as they’re turned on, the blue team’s shelter was shot back and slid all the way to a nearby building. It seemed the Hydro Pump was super effective because the inflatable raft was destroyed by the fire that snuck in during the previous round. The water gun landed a critical hit on the red team too. Their shelter was shot back, and it even falls apart. The dummy remained attached to only the roof as it slid down the pavement.

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Well, at least the red team’s dummy is clean now.

Upon closer inspection, the judges find that the red team failed the water test because the screws of the hinges holding the panels together were too small and had no washers, so the panels tore apart. With the blue team, the fire made it under their tent and melted the inflatable raft, which released lots of carbon dioxide into the air. A human could not have survived the fire in their shelter. Without the inflatable raft, the water challenge was doomed to fail. It makes me wonder if things would have turned out differently had they done the tests in a different order.

Burt Dalton, the man behind the special effects of “Total Recall” and “Star Trek,” is the guest judge this week. He announced that the red team wins because they passed two tests while the blue team passed only one.

Interestingly, Ifill has no say in who the weakest link was because he was eliminated, so he steps off to the side. Although the judges dislike Stroup’s inflatable raft idea since it released carbon dioxide into the air, they eliminate Wong due to her ineffective leadership style. The judges are looking for a leader who can balance collaboration with executive steering. This is the second time, though, that a team leader has been eliminated, so I stick by my opinion that winning the Blueprint Challenge is risky.

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However, Elliott has been a team leader twice and proved herself competent both times. If she ends up making a serious mistake sometime down the road, I hope the judges take her past successes into account. I’d like to see her win due to her good teamwork skills and smart engineering. Plus, I wouldn’t mind seeing a female win a competition in engineering, which is stereotyped as a man’s field. I should also point out that Elliott comforted Wong as she cried after the elimination, which I thought was very kind.

Next week, the contestants will have to build a robot that is capable of performing various track and field events. This sounds like the hardest challenge yet, so I’m expecting many days to work in the shop and a big, meaty budget. It’s also the first challenge where electronics take center stage, so it will be interesting to see who the strongest minds are.

To watch the full third episode, visit the “Pure Genius” website.

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