Four graduate students to appear in premiere of Chasing Nature

Courtesy of Jimmy Baggs chasing group

David Lu, Leslie Oley, Alfonso Pulido and Mark Bianco, all graduate students in engineering at Stanford, went to Australia to construct in four days what Mother Nature took years to develop.

This fall, four graduate engineering students will appear in the premiere of Animal Planet's new television series, Chasing Nature. By participating in the show, the students had the opportunity to partake in reality TV, gain hands-on engineering experience and duplicate the handiwork of nature.

"Being a part of the show was a unique opportunity to work collaboratively on a challenging project with a great group of engineers," says team member Leslie Oley. "We found that rivaling the work of Mother Nature was an enormous undertaking, especially when given such a short time period."

The series, which is produced by Beyond International, features teams of four amateur engineers who are sent to Royal National Park in Australia. Their task is to work together to replicate, in only four days, a human-scale model of a specific physical characteristic of an animal, and then make sure that the model actually works. For example, a team could be asked to replicate an eagle's wings. Once the mechanism is built, a team member must wear it to test its viability.

The Stanford engineers had the knowledge to get the job done—machine shop skills, mechanical engineering training and even some background in biomechanics. But viewers will have to watch the show to find out what task the students were assigned, and if they were successful in their efforts.

Lights, camera, actionAn important feature of the show is that participants are initially kept in the dark about their project. "We didn't know if we'd be working as a team [or] working against each other," says team member Alfonso Pulido. "We had absolutely no idea what to expect."

It wasn't until the Stanford engineers arrived in Australia and filming began that they were finally given an explanation of the rules of the show and the details of their task. Then they were left with only a machine shop and their imaginations to get the job done, as camera crews documented their efforts on tape.

Team members agree that the most difficult part of the work was the four-day time constraint. With filming, re-filming and breaks for interviews, they quickly learned that their task was actually twofold: to create a piece of machinery and to develop a reality television show.

"Reality TV is a lot less real than you think," says team member David Lu. "There were some scenes that we had to tape 12 times."

As a result, the team often would spend a full day working in the shop but accomplish only about three hours of actual labor. "Decent acting and solid engineering are tough to mix," notes team member Mark Bianco.

Even with the strict time limit and rigorous filming schedule, the heaviest burden was the pressure that the students put on themselves to be successful. "There was a lot of self-imposed pressure, because we knew that we were representing Stanford and other Stanford engineers," Pulido says.

While all of the students enjoyed being a part of the program, not all of them are begging to do it again. "Being on the show was a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I feel very privileged to have been included," Oley says. "But I think I would leave it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Latice Strickland is a science-writing intern with the Stanford News Service.

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