Campus entrance sign with pond and amphitheater in background.

Resourceful engineering students save iconic campus sign from demise

When the P and the B from Penn State Beaver’s iconic “chimney stack” entrance sign went missing, the campus called on Senior Engineering Instructor Jim Hendrickson and two of his students to find a fix.

When the metal P and the B from Penn State Beaver’s iconic “chimney stack” entrance sign went missing, it should have been a simple fix – call the company that originally designed it and ask for replacement letters.

But the company couldn’t help. The sign designer had died, and his original plans had long ago been lost or tossed.

So Beaver’s Director of Business and Finance Adam Rathbun was left with two choices: spend a lot of money on a new sign or find a clever fix for the original.

Rathbun and his maintenance department decided on the latter, and took the problem to engineering instructor Jim Hendrickson.

“Can you help us?” they asked.

“Well, I could,” Hendrickson said. “But I’d rather get some students involved.”

You see, Hendrickson has a reputation for handing his young engineering students seemingly impossible assignments and asking them for creative solutions. Last year, he tasked a group of students with fixing an ailing blacksmith forge … using 19th century technology. They did. So surely he could find someone to restore a sign.

Hendrickson enlisted sophomores Leah Berry and Nicole Chemini in the quest. The pair spent the year running the campus maker lab and were familiar with the software and tools Hendrickson suspected might fix the issue.

Their plan of attack was to scan the identical letters on the other side of the sign. But those letters were welded on.

“Leah and Nicole had to revert to the old fashioned ways of reverse engineering,” Hendrickson said.

That involved borrowing some carbon paper from Beaver’s longtime and legendary physics professor Leo Takahashi (who was surprised the students had ever even heard of carbon paper) and making rubbings of the letters. They scanned the rubbings into Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to smooth out the rough edges. Then they used a CNC router – a computer-controlled machine that cuts metal, plastic and wood – to create plywood prototypes.

Those prototypes now hang at the campus entrance, and Hendrickson plans use his students’ design to fashion permanent metal versions later this year.

Problem solved.

“It was really a good experience because it taught us how the process of engineering works,” Chemini said. “It was nice to get a little insight into thought process, the design process and the manufacturing process versus just the theoreticals you get from class.”

Plus, Berry and Chemini now have bragging rights. They aced one of Hendrickson’s real-life tests, which are nearly as notorious as the in-class version.

All of which they suspect has sufficiently prepared them for their impending transfer to the Behrend campus, where they will both study mechanical engineering. They’re already planning a road trip to Beaver once the permanent letters are welded onto the sign. And, of course, they’ll drop by Hendrickson’s office while they’re in town.

“He can’t get rid of us that easy,” Chemini said.