The university’s police has confirmed that last week’s bomb hoax, which involved a “suspicious package” found on Haines Street on Feb. 10, turned out to be a discarded engineering project.
“We don’t have any reason to believe it was a hoax device, we just think that it was part of a student’s project and it was just discarded in the trash, because, monetarily, it doesn’t have much value,” Chief Patrick Ogden of UDPD said.
Ogden explained that when a facilities crew emptied the dumpsters on Friday morning, they saw the device in question and immediately notified the police department. The object itself was described as an apparatus of PVC pipe, end-caps, copper wiring and electrical tape.
UDPD then contacted the Delaware State Police’s Explosive Ordinance Device team, which provided additional resources, including a robot that was able to examine and disassemble the device.
Michael Chajes, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the university, teaches Introduction to Engineering, or EGGG101, a first-year course for all engineering students. He and two other professors teach the required course for freshmen. Just two years ago, Chajes said, the course was redesigned to include a project where students build an energy harvester.
“It basically is a device that is supposed to generate electricity to power a personal device like a cell phone,” Chajes said.
Though not every project looked the same, Chajes said a popular design involved a magnet inside a tube, wrapped in a wire coil that could be attached to a voltmeter. The simple mechanism of the energy harvester involves a magnet passing through a coil to generate an electrical current that can be used for small purposes, like charging a small electronic.
“They’re built very crudely; they’re very makeshift,” Chajes said.
After the device was dissembled, Ogden said the police began investigating the device further, eventually making the connection to the engineering department following an officer’s research.
“One of our detectives did some work on the computer, and he found a YouTube video called ‘shake flashlight,’” Ogden said.
The video demonstrated a simple mechanism that used the same materials as the “suspicious package” to generate electricity to power a light. From there, the detective reached out to some of the engineering professors to investigate further.
Chajes said he had not considered the possibility that the device was one of the class projects until a colleague suggested it.
Zachary LaDuca, a freshman chemical engineering major, began hearing speculation that the “bomb” was a discarded class project soon after the incident concluded on Feb. 10.
LaDuca was unsurprised when the rumor was confirmed.
“It was only a matter of time before someone found one and freaked out,” he said. “I feel like sooner or later it would have happened because they look like bombs, 100 percent.”
He said while he and his peers worked on their energy harvesters in the studio they joked sometimes about the project’s resemblance to a bomb, despite the harmless nature of the device. Although LaDuca’s project was not of the same design as the one involved in the incident, he was familiar with the “shaker” form that many other students constructed for the assignment.
“Someone who wasn’t in the project would just see a piece of pipe with a bunch of wires sticking out of it,” LaDuca said. “It absolutely looked like a pipe bomb.”
Ogden said he was pleased with the efforts of university police and the state police in handling the situation, saying that the whole operation was “handled flawlessly.”
He also emphasized that no one is at fault and the situation arose out of misunderstanding.
“I don’t think there was any malicious intent anywhere,” Ogden said. “Now that this has happened, the entire community will learn from it and I don’t anticipate that anything like this will happen again.”
Chajes and other engineering faculty recently distributed an email to students to address the issue.
“We’ve actually notified all the students and told them to please disassemble them before they dispose of them,” he said of the projects.
Chajes remarked that if the project continues in the future, the criteria will include a warning about properly dismantling the project before disposal.
LaDuca said he believes both he and his peers have learned to consider the perspectives of others when dealing with projects that are familiar only to engineers.
“The lesson you can pull away is not everyone knows what you know about something,” he said.
Ogden said that the police still encourages members of the campus community to speak up if they see something suspicious, even if it turns out to be innocent.
“Our number-one priority is the safety of the campus and we don’t want to take anything for granted,” he said.