Homecoming 2016: Float makers find balance between the technical and the creative (Slideshow and article)

Bayliss Wagner, Team Leader

Hours before the kickoff of the homecoming football game, apprehensive members of the Class of 2018 are surrounding Mara Casebeer, the junior class council vice president, as she crouches on top of their float, elbow-deep in a plaster volcano. After tendrils of steam begin to rise out of its cavity, the students cheer and applaud.

“Our fog machine was somehow malfunctioning but then we had papier-machéd the whole volcano, so we couldn’t exactly take the volcano apart and we had already stapled it down,” Casebeer said. “We needed to see what was wrong and my hand was the only one that was small enough to fit inside of it.”

Students of every class are clustered in front of four vibrant, unique homecoming floats to admire them (or to size up the competition). Class council members and float volunteers scramble to place finishing touches and to test moving parts like fog machines and robotic components before the judges will scrutinize their work.

A full month of tedious preparation, weekly meetings, flower-folding and robot-assembly had culminated on that night, Fri., Oct. 14, 2016. Class council members typically led planning and scheduling while other students, from MEX performers to artists to future engineers, helped them build the floats.

Each class was required to build a large, mobile float that depicted their homecoming theme. The class of 2020, whose theme was “Beauty and the Beast,” molded and painted papier-maché characters from the movie, including Belle, Mrs. Potts and her teacup child Chip, Cogsworth the clock, and Lumière, the candelabra. For the theme of “Seasonal Switchup,” the freshmen segmented a sturdy tree into colorful representations of each season.

The Class of 2018 designed an artistic float with scientific aspects to fit their theme, “Land and Sea,” by creating a mechanical Earth and surrounding it with different types of terrestrial and marine environments.

“We knew that we wanted to have a big rotating globe and then after that, once we’d realized that we wanted to papier-mâché that aspect, then we realized that that would be a pretty good technique to use for the rest of the biomes,” Casebeer said.

Because they had more knowledge about engineering and robotics, the upperclassmen had a distinct advantage over the lowerclassmen, most of whom had not yet taken tech lab prerequisites. The senior class used these skills to fit their theme of “Fandom Frenzy,” incorporating robotic components like a lighted sign, moving arm and fog machine into their float, which featured popular television and book series like “Pokémon” and “Doctor Who.”

“Dana Scheetz built a life-sized TARDIS [a time machine from the “Doctor Who” television series],” said senior Jenna Greenwalt, a member of the robotics club and robotics senior research lab who also played a major role in creating a moving arm for the float’s Darth Vader figure. “She’s in the proto lab so she used all of the things she learned in there to make [it] from scratch.”

“During robotics, we learned how to use the 3D printer and things like that and the laser cutter and we were then able to use those techniques in our float,” said Casebeer of the class of 2018’s mobile components.

Another resource that the class of 2017 had access to was a convenient location. Dylan Seng has offered his house, which is walking distance from Jefferson, for his class’s homecoming float projects for the past two years. Because of his interest in engineering he had equipment and materials that they could use in his garage.

“I like to build things in general,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of different projects over the years, each developing my engineering skills along the way, and float was the perfect opportunity to further those skills.”

In addition to the skills that students had learned in specialized, technology-oriented classes at Jefferson, members of both the junior and senior classes turned previous experiences into more efficient meetings and more effective float structures. To maximize man-hours of work on the floats, both classes fit float-making tasks into MEX activities. The class of 2017 required MEX dancers to attend at least one float meeting and cut members who did not comply by the end of September.

“We had most of the flowers done at the float meetings,” Tran said during a float meeting after school on Tues., Oct. 11. “That’s usually a very strenuous act that takes long weeks because only a few people are willing to fold them. But by making it a requirement, it optimized how much time we used for building it. Right now, we’re about a week ahead of schedule, which goes to show that we’ve refined our skills and utilized what we have.”

The class of 2018 had a different approach, bringing float components to the MEX dancers instead of requiring that they go to the float meetings.

“We had [float materials] during MEX practices sometimes, so if [participants] weren’t actively involved in a dance, they could come over and make flowers,” Casebeer said.

Seng mentioned that the senior class built the entire plywood structure of the float in three hours one weekend morning, much more quickly than they had before. He also described the ways in which they had learned from the past three years in order to evolve their building techniques.

“Initially, we were using chicken wire and we’d put it on and tie it on which would be very tedious and time consuming and it didn’t really have very much structural integrity. What we’ve discovered through the years is that it would be a lot easier just to use staple guns and to staple each flower on.”

After volunteer drivers paraded the floats and their creators around the track during halftime, the results were announced: the juniors had won, followed by the seniors, second; the freshmen, third; and the sophomores, fourth.

When Casebeer observed the competition earlier, she noticed that the other classes had incorporated larger, more obvious components into their floats. She was relieved when she learned that the judges had still appreciated their design.

“From far away, the other [floats] sort of looked more impressive but the judges really examined them up close, so they saw all the detailed work that went into it, which is why I think we won.”

Both Tran and Seng mentioned that their homecoming float experience this year went much more smoothly than it had in previous years. Last year, for example, problems with transportation of the float led the class of 2017 to miss the deadline on the day of the homecoming football game by three minutes. They were disqualified.

“I’ll be very happy if we get first, but really my goal was just to not get last and I think we’ve done that,” Tran said before submitting the float. “As long as we try our best, I think that’s what it comes down to at the end of the day. I would say that we’ve improved a lot over our past floats and I’m really proud of our product. I don’t think it’s necessarily about winning, I think it’s about showing what we’ve done.”