Faculty and students find treasures at Lion Surplus

Krista Weidner
May 27, 2015

On a chilly, overcast morning in early December, about a dozen Penn State engineering students gathered in a meeting room at Lion Surplus, a warehouse store at the north end of the University Park campus. The students were on a quest for raw materials to use for their assignment: design and build an invention that will make cars greener and smarter. 

After some brief instructions from their professor — Conrad Tucker, assistant professor of engineering design and industrial engineering — they headed out to the scrapyard behind the warehouse. In teams of four, they scoured the grounds, as Tucker periodically called out reminders and words of encouragement.

One group, pulling bundles of wire from a giant cable, planned to make a device that would eliminate the blind spot in trucks. Another team rooted through a dumpster, searching for materials to build a tailpipe filter that would reduce carbon emissions.

“Your hands should be full by now!” Tucker announced at one point, as one young woman, upon discovering an old window screen, exclaimed, “Oooh, mesh!”

Lion Surplus serves as a repository for equipment, furniture and other supplies that Penn State departments no longer need. The store is open to the general public as well as the University community. It’s also a valuable resource for faculty and students who need materials for a variety of projects. The benefits of Lion Surplus partnering with Penn State academic departments are many: faculty and students save money, cast-off materials are repurposed and students practice sustainability in a hands-on way.

For Tucker’s first-year honors engineering students, Lion Surplus plays an important role in their assignment to design a prototype to solve a problem.

“I want my students to look at junk in a new way: as an opportunity to redesign,” Tucker said. “We need to transform our idea of trash. At Surplus, you never know what you’re going to find. It’s a treasure trove and it’s a fun challenge that sparks creativity.”

Tom Jackson, Robert E. Kirby Chair professor of electrical engineering, has a long-running relationship with Lion Surplus, which helps him and his students with their projects.

“I run a very experimentally based lab,” he said. “We do experiments that involve hardware. I’m involved in semiconductor research — we work on things like flexible electronics, how to integrate electronics with biosystems, how to make wearable electronics. Basically we build widgets, and we need the facilities that will let us do many things.”

Jackson and his students find a variety of useful items at Lion Surplus — from simple supplies such as desks and computers to sophisticated equipment.

“Last spring we bought two optical tables at Surplus,” Jackson said. “They’re these big, heavy tables that have a vibration isolation system for setting up optically based experiments. One of them is now in a lab in the Millennium Science Center and it’s used as part of a project sponsored by Dow Chemical on flexible and printed electronics. The other one went to a relatively new faculty member here in electrical engineering who is starting up and growing his research program. So we got the advantage of low cost, and this repurposed equipment is serving Penn State research in an important way.”

Jackson offered an example of another valuable find: several years ago he spotted a nondescript metal box at Surplus. Recognizing the box as the chamber from an Applied Materials P5000, a commercial semiconductor process tool, he bought it at a low cost.

“My students and I used this as the starting point to build a new tool — a plasma enhanced atomic layer deposition system,” he said. “Now we have a system that allows us to do things that no expensive commercial system would. And my students’ understanding of this is far beyond what it would be if we had just bought a commercial system. The students have a sense of ownership.”

Sometimes, Jackson said, he has a chance to reciprocate and help out Glenn Feagley, manager of Lion Surplus, and his staff.

“Occasionally they’ll get something in and they don’t know what it is, so they ask me, 'What is it? Are there safety issues? Is it usable?' I’m happy to help when I can because we try to do right by each other. Glenn talks about wanting to raise awareness of Lion Surplus and draw in more students. A greater awareness would be good — I’ll take the competition. Besides, lots of people might be interested in that table or that desk, but not many would want that P5000!”

Another frequent visitor to Lion Surplus is James Kalsbeek, associate professor of architecture. Kalsbeek, whose research focuses on reclamation, sends his students to Lion Surplus to find materials for a spring semester project.

“A lot of people have a mistaken idea of what first-year architecture education looks like,” he said. “They might think our freshmen are drawing house plans at a drafting board. That’s very far from what we do. We make stuff — we design and build tables, chairs, lamps. Students acquire a piece of junk and see how they can be creative with it. Repurposing objects is a way you can educate architects to deal with the realities of the world.”

Kalsbeek and his students are most interested in the area of Lion Surplus behind the warehouse and showroom — the “junk” that will likely be carted away for scrap.

“We get most excited in the back back back yard,” he said. “It’s great because often, surplus and salvage operations at large universities like Penn State aren’t seen as curricular — they don’t have any connections to students and faculty. So we really appreciate Glenn and everyone at Lion Surplus. We’re lucky to have them and lucky that they like us and support our students.”

Creative efforts to turn trash into treasure pay off for students as well. For example, one of the teams from Tucker’s class, which spent that December morning behind the Lion Surplus warehouse, won the Best Engineered Design Award at the 2014 Engineering Design Showcase for their entry: a fully functional Android app that could serve as a “social network” for drivers, using accelerometer data from vehicles on the road to warn users in other vehicles of potential hazards ahead.

Students used scrap wheels, seats and wood from Lion Surplus to create a prototype vehicle ‎that they used to demonstrate the app. “This is truly an amazing achievement,” Tucker said in an email to his students. “You worked hard, motivated each other to do the same, and it paid off.”

Feagley enjoys the collaboration with faculty and students and appreciates the way they repurpose what they find at Lion Surplus.

“It’s amazing how they can take the rustiest piece of trash and envision something,” he said. “Not long ago, I asked Tom Jackson if my staff and I could visit his lab and see what he’s done with some of the items he’s gotten from Surplus. We see him taking all this stuff but don’t know what he’s doing with it. So he showed us around, and it was impressive. It gave us a sense of pride to see what he’s doing.

“To me it’s important that we have that tie with professors and students,” Feagley continued. “We’re all here because of the students, and we like to help them when we can. Nothing makes me prouder than seeing a student walk in here with very little money and walk out with something they need — you can’t put a price tag on that.”

  • Student research using Lion Surplus materials

    A Penn State student looks at an overhead projector made from scrap materials from Lion Surplus. Lion Surplus, on the University Park campus, serves as a repository for equipment, furniture and other supplies that Penn State departments no longer need.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated May 28, 2015