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Class project handles curves

Published Oct. 10, 2005

My latest fantasy: I'm Edmund Gallizzi, professor, physicist, apparent pussycat.

I'm driving among strangers, far away. Suddenly my car is stricken. Sputters, whimpers, slouches painfully into a respectable-looking repair shop.

Mechanics bound forward, study the damage. One speaks, his crocodile eyes soft with fake sympathy.

"The transmission," he says. "Special damage," he adds. "I think we can hold it to $1,600."

In life, I groan, I grouse, I pay. But this is fantasyland, and I am Gallizzi, and this is what I do:

Drive the crippled car out the door. Park in front of the shop. Taxi to an auto parts lot and buy a used transmission. Bring it back, install it in record time, with the mechanics standing around, awed, intimidated. Give them a patronizing smile, varoom the engine and drive off in a cloud of dust.

Back to reality. In his office at Eckerd College, Gallizzi, 46, smiles deprecatingly:

"About 15 years ago, I did something like that. Broke down somewhere in Texas and got a second-hand transmission and jacked up the car and installed it right there by the side of the road.

"But in a situation like you describe, I probably would have had to pay, too."

Gallizzi is head of the Computer Science Department at Eckerd College. He also teaches a rather amazing class called Physics, Design and Implementation of Vehicles. The class project: to build a car.

This year's car is a Cobra, a high-performance sports car of the 1950-1960s era. The class worked from a kit produced in a Tampa factory and built an engine in their workroom on the Eckerd campus.

Students studied both theory and practice: how to take down a carburetor and how to understand Bernoulli's Equation.

Bernoulli's what? The answer has to do with carburetors sucking up gas, or maybe spitting it out. Anyway, the students understand, and that's what's important.

Another key to automotive comprehension is Pascal's Principle. Yes, that Pascal, the one who had all those pensees that philosophy students study. According to Professor Gallizzi, this particular Principle of Pascal explains why brakes work.

One of the more interesting elements of all this deep thinking is that neither Bernoulli nor Pascal lived to be transported by anything more aerodynamic than a horse.

There are 11 male and six female students in the class. Kim Lejkowski used to help her boyfriend work on his car. This was after she got into auto repair at 15, when she helped her father repair a transmission.

"It wasn't a very successful job," she says, "but I got a chance to get greasy."

"That's why she's in the class _ she loves to get grease on her hands," says Chris Rector, another student.

Why is Chris in the class? "I registered late, and it was, like, one of the few classes that were still open."

Still he is glad he took the class, and so is Kim. "I wanted all this theory," she says. "I like to know more than how things work. I like to know why."

Car class finished in January, but the Cobra is a long way from taking to the road. In the end Gallizzi probably will finish it himself, and keep it, which is fair enough because he paid for the kit himself.

In other years, each student in his class built a computer. About 60 percent or 70 percent of the things worked well enough to use.

Several years ago, the class started an MG-TF (the original came out in 1955), and Gallizzi paid for it and finished it, too. He still drives the pretty little thing to work every day.

Gallizzi is not so willing as he once was to dive into the intimate parts of automobiles. "There are some things I don't do," he says.

"For example, I won't change the clutch on my wife's Chrysler. Nowadays I only do what's fun."