Class of ’23: Working Against the Clock, Leaving a Reminder of Their Time at UVA

May 11, 2023 By Eric Williamson, Eric Williamson,

The school year is almost over, and these fourth-year University of Virginia students have been working against the clock – just as the clock has been working against them.

Most of the 13 engineering whizzes taking the inaugural “The Art of Timekeeping” course have been coiled like mainsprings against one enemy in particular: a monumental robotic art clock dubbed “The Sands of Time.”

Six years in the making, the University-themed timepiece was started by student “Gizmologists” taking a capstone course, then shelved until this semester. The ambitious chronometer – that’s the scientific term for anything that measures time – was designed to be the ultimate expression of what it means to go to school here.

On the one hand, with its 12 sand hourglasses that seem to float in space, encircled by futuristic-looking LED rings and controlled by precision robotics, the clock is meant to be a testament to Virginia’s engineering prowess.

On another, with a Rotunda-shaped mirror at its center, the clock is meant to serve as a truism to which most alums will attest: You’ll have the time of your life at UVA.

But first the students have to get the clock working. Associate professor Gavin Garner said the daring steampunk-style design has resulted in its share of migraines learning moments for his students. That has made its completion by year’s end in no way a given.

“There’s a kind of joke in design and engineering,” Garner said. “There’s a conservation of problems, just like a conservation of energy in physics, where you can never completely get rid of problems, you just convert big problems into smaller, less-important ones that can be swept under the rug.”

This exercise in blood, sweat and gears will end one way or another. But who will win? The students – or their stubborn, unfinished timepiece?

A Whiff of Smoke

It’s mid-April when UVA Today visits the Mechatronics Lab, one of the rooms in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering building where awesomeness is built.

On the walls hangs an assortment of individualized electric guitars crafted by students who took Garner’s Advanced Mechatronics course. One guitar is shaped like a fighter jet. Another contains video of the “Eye of Sauron” from “The Lord of the Rings.” At the center of the room, a table built to resemble a giant cassette tape flashes unnoticed. A pinball machine in one corner goes ignored as well.

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Patrick closely working on clock circuit
Patrick Dunnington prototypes revamped circuitry on the Virginia “V” clock.

The students are not tempted by any of these potential distractions because they’re engrossed in their work and each other’s company.

Then, with a flash and a pop, a tiny cloud of smoke rises. The Sands of Time has shorted. The students huddle.

“It was wired into the wrong pole on the breadboard,” reports Hudson Burke, a computer engineering major from Sacramento, California.

A breadboard is a plastic piece of equipment that allows engineers to try out electrical configurations without committing yet to soldering. Garner and the students appear to take the setback in stride.

“We roll with the punches,” Garner says looking on. “If things catch fire, we put out the fire and figure out what went wrong. That’s the story for the next three weeks.”

At the moment, the single clock hand that is supposed to both turn the five-minute hourglasses and point out the hour is frozen. Its wires are exposed. Garner demonstrates how the robotics will work by giving one barrel a spin. Brown grains trickle through the bottleneck. Ultimately, 93 LEDs will light up each of the 12 circles. Observers will be able to tell the time within five minutes based on which circle is lit.

For now, though, students continue to work through the aftermath of the short. They consult an oscilloscope, which looks like it could be a piece of equipment belonging in an intensive care unit. Wavy lines on the monitor attempt to diagnose where the clock hurts.

Hudson Burke diagnoses a problem.
Hudson Burke diagnoses a problem.

“So if we’re running a motor and we want to see where it’s drawing the most current or where it’s almost stalling out, we can plug these in,” says Anthony Moore, a mechanical engineering major from Philadelphia, referring to the scope’s output wires. “Then we can watch it go over time.”

When asked if the patient is going to survive, the student says, “I think so. This is like the fifth time that we’ve figured out what’s wrong.”

He adds, “One of the really fun things about working on a project like this, that’s so sophisticated, is there’re a million little problems, so we get to have a lot of really small victories: ‘Oh, we just got the lights working on one of the hourglasses! Oh, we just got the motor running a little bit!’”

The students push on, and UVA Today gets out of their collective hair.

Soon, they will return to working through the 12 clock positions, making sure the mechanisms can perform their tricks at each of their appointed stops.

They’ll do this again and again, like clockwork, until they build up to a full hour.

Basically Starting Over

What may seem funny to anyone other than an engineer is that the first group of students who worked on The Sands of Time six years ago did achieve limited functionality with their clock. A different clock featuring the Virginia “V” that three other students are revisiting was even further along.

So why return to the projects?

Well, every good engineer knows that anything that works can always work a whole lot better.

Burke explained in an email before the classroom visit, “We’re essentially rebuilding all of the electronics and software from scratch and incorporating them with the existing mechanical components, so it has been somewhat of a challenge to understand the original intent behind some design aspects.”

Alexa and Alexander discuss Alex's clock
Alexa Borden and Alexander Pommerenk discuss ways to optimize the Sands mechanisms.

On the “V” clock, which has both digital and analog functions, including gears that rotate metal disks on the outer face, the students had to compare the original pencil-drawn schematic to the actual motherboard that resulted, teasing out what the original thinking must have been and making assumptions about why it changed.

Their goal hasn’t just been a timepiece that works well. They want one that can work with precision for at least 10 years straight, no further tinkering required.

A third project being worked on during the course is completely new, however. Three students are creating an orrery – a mechanical model that indicates the relative position of the Earth, sun and moon at any specified time during the past, present or future. A time machine, if you will. Unlike antique orreries that are pure clockwork, this one is robotic and Garner believes it to be the first of its kind.

Fortunately with this collection of experienced students, nearly all of whom have taken Garner’s foundational Mechatronics and Advanced Mechatronics courses, nobody is “the” specialist. Everyone can plug in like a fuse, or put an extra set of eyes on a problem.

That’s been especially important on Sands. Tagging out and letting a friend take a shot is totally permitted – as is the occasional swear word. Pivoting to other aspects of the project is acceptable, too.

“I have done that,” Moore said. “Like, I’m going to go wire stuff or work on the design aspect, because the electronics are driving me crazy.”

Occasionally, though, time stops completely.

“As with most design projects, there are times when progressing with one aspect of the clock is contingent on other systems working first,” said Alexa Borden, a mechanical engineering major from Boise, Idaho. “This can create delays and moments of stagnation where the work can be more frustrating.”

Even so, nobody wants to knock off. They all want to birth this thing. In some cases, that’s been at the expense of a hang at The Corner, a hike up Old Rag Mountain or some other aspect of the UVA college experience they could be pursuing before the clock runs out.

Sam Montante and Brian Richard confer on the orrery.
Sam Montante and Brian Richard confer on the orrery.

“We have definitely put in some extra hours outside of class, but that is purely by choice because our team is motivated to finish this project well,” Burke said.

In theory, the students only seek the instructor’s advice if everyone is stumped. And there have been a few times. But Garner prefers to let the students feel their way forward. It’s better preparation for the real world.

“The more experience they have, the easier it is for them to kind of see what they’re able to design and create with the resources they have, including time,” the instructor said.

Fittingly, the course started out with everyone making their own custom clocks, which most of them have already taken home. Along the way, Garner has also stimulated some mind-bending discussion about the nature of time and presented an abbreviated history of timepieces.

“That’s how Stonehenge was believed to have worked,” he said, “as a timepiece.”

Time Runs Out

On May 3, UVA Today returns to the classroom. This is the last day the students will all be together as the gears grind down toward exams and graduation. Ideally, it’s also “the big reveal.”

A little over a week prior, though, Garner emailed. The Sands setback was much bigger than might have been obvious: “We all tried to play it cool when it happened, but that spark and puff of smoke right after you arrived was actually quite devastating (one of the worst-case possible scenarios).”

Close up view of a microchip
All of the clocks run on a Parallax Propeller 2 microcontroller chip. With its eight parallel, 32-bit cores, it is a tiny computer that is embedded into the clocks. It runs software code at up to 1.2 billion lines per second, reading data from sensors, control motors and lights.

Where at first it seemed the class was on its way to a perfectly functioning clock, now we’re in suspense. Will the mechanical arm and light functions be a total bust?

Before we find out, the students working on the “V” clock – Joseph Abbe, Patrick Dunnington and Nicholas Sofinski – demonstrate an upgrade. Previously, to set the time, the clock had to be reset exactly at noon or midnight. Now switches are in place to program any time directly. The students demonstrate: Gears whir and the correct hour and minute lock into place.

Only time will tell if the clock can go a full decade without further maintenance.

The orrery team – Bjorn Bergloff, Isaac Duke, Sam Montante and Brian Richard – demonstrate their Earth-positioning time machine. They plug in a day and time into their attached laptop, and with a zippy swivel, the device moves the Earth and moon into precise position.

Rotation around the sun will have to wait, as development of that mechanism remains unfinished.

Hourglass with tie dye background as one of the arms in The Sand's of Time clock
The Sands of Time clock’s arm turns real hourglasses, each representing five minutes.

Finally, it’s down to the Sands team, comprised of Tristan Gross, Alexander Pommerenk and Iain Ramsey, as well Borden, Burke and Moore. The students stayed past midnight, then returned early the next morning, to give the project another big push.

They reveal they recovered much of their mechanical functioning. The arm moves. The light display works. But there’s a problem with the code – likely just one line, but it’s among tens of thousands of instructions – so getting the arm to engage the sprockets to turn the barrel for the hourglass is still problematic.

It’s that reality of engineering that Garner mentioned: time.

A week later, however, the students have the clock running more precisely. They demonstrate what 8:10 looks like. As the lights flash in swirling colors, the arm moves clockwise past the 12 o’clock position to the second barrel, which it rotates, starting the five-minute countdown of sand, then continues to the 8 o’clock position to hold there, indicating the correct time. They demonstrate other times as well.

Eventually, all three timepieces will be displayed in the building. Future students, however, may do some more fine-tuning.

(Video by Vinny Varsalona, University Communications)

It’s not lost on the current students that the mirror at the center of the UVA-themed timepiece doubles as an opportunity to reflect on their time in college. Was their time indeed well spent?

Sam Montante, a Richmond native and part of the team working on the orrery, said if he had to do his four years over again, he would do so happily, although he’s not sure where he could improve.

“When I came to UVA to study engineering, I took these types of courses, and that’s when it clicked for me: I want to be a mechanical engineer,” he said.

Garner, the professor, said it’s going to be hard saying goodbye to the dedicated group.

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

“I’ve been working with most of them for five courses at this point, and I’ve poured a lot of my knowledge into them,” he said. “They’re actually very competent, and they’ve matured so much as engineers. Right now, I’d give anything to work alongside them for a couple more months.”

The students will be moving on to careers at an engineering consulting firm, a company that helps facilities enhance their electronic and cybersecurity, and other tech employers.

Even if they could turn back the clock now, going backward simply isn’t an option.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications