Which Future Engineer Will Be 'Prince of Nerds?' : UCI 'Week' Salutes Bashful Brains

Times Staff Writer

Not all engineering students are nerds, but all nerds are engineering students .

--Dave Hirayama UC Irvine engineering student

Engineering students get no respect. But without them there would be no airplanes to fly, no bridges to cross and no "nerds" to laugh at.

This week, UC Irvine observes Engineering Week, an annual salute to that luckless breed of student known for wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, high-water pants and a pocket calculator.

The week--one of the most popular at UC Irvine--pits engineering students against each other in various contests, ranging from model bridge-building to egg drops from a nine-story building.

A "Crown Prince of Nerds" contest, in which the bravest students dress as nerds, ends the week on Thursday.

An oil derrick-building contest began Tuesday's events.

A dozen would-be engineering students from six Orange County high schools tried to build the strongest model derrick using only flat toothpicks and Elmer's glue.

Test of Strength

Judges then tested the derricks by pouring lead shot into a bucket that was strung through the middle of each derrick.

When a derrick finally collapsed, the bucket was weighed. The derrick with the best strength-to-weight ratio was judged best.

The winners' 14-gram derrick withstood 17 pounds of pull. It was built by Marissa Gutierrez, Marvell Gomez, and Leticia Castro--16-year-old girls from Saddleback High School, and certainly not nerds.

Their secret? They didn't use a calculator or a slide rule, as most nerds would. Instead, they used three days of guesswork, and followed the advice of their physics teacher to construct the derrick in triangular pieces, placing more weight at the top.

Perhaps afraid of being called a nerd, none of the winners said she wanted to be an engineer. "We're not sure," Gutierrez said.

Another contest, for those who are pursuing engineering careers, involved flying paper airplanes from the second floor of the Engineering Building.

(Nerds are known for making paper airplane design a true science.)

Contestants were judged by the flight time of their planes.

About 20 engineering students competed for the top prize, an hour of flying instruction.

The winner was Don Bergstedt, 21, a senior in mechanical engineering, whose graph-paper airplane flew for 25.6 seconds.

The plane made a magnificient journey, gliding safely through the branches of several trees before it landed on a street about a hundred yards away.

The secret of making a perfect paper airplane, Bergstedt said, is to stick to the basics.

"I don't use any tape or staples," both of which were permitted under the rules, he said.

No Pens in Pocket

By the way, Bergstedt is not a nerd: He took up the sport of paper-airplaning only recently, and he doesn't wear a pocket penholder.

The real nerds come out on Thursday, when the "Crown Prince of Nerds" will be selected. The contest is done for laughs, but it's also a tribute.

"People might laugh at nerds," said Dave Hirayama, co-chairman of Engineering Week, "but they usually have the last laugh. They're the ones who roll in the bucks after they graduate."

The definition of nerdism is simple, Hirayama said.

"It's somebody who studies so much that they lack personal hygiene," he said.

"They have greasy hair, their clothes don't match, they wear horn-rimmed glasses and they have calculators in their belts.

"In short," he said, "they're really out of it."

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