It’s a complicated, time-consuming process to design and build a float for the world-renowned Rose Parade. Yet, student volunteers from Cal Poly Pomona and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo have built one from the ground up every year since 1949.
The 2017 Cal Poly Universities entry features three giant chameleons, dragonflies and butterflies with flapping wings in a tropical setting. The family of chameleons leaving home to explore the world symbolizes learning by doing. The idea originated from a rough sketch of two chameleons.
“We’re trying to depict realistic-looking chameleons,” says Kyle Nelius, a senior studying electrical engineering who is president of the Pomona Rose Float team. “We have to almost copy a chameleon and explode it bigger for the float.”
To give themselves even more of a challenge, the students decided to have the largest chameleon, at 27 feet, change colors during the parade.
The design team is responsible for the look of everything on top of the float. They determine elements to include and how large each one needs to be. Then, the team works with a graphic artist to create the rendering and a 3D model using a software called Rhino.
“Rhino shows all of the elements to scale – the highest point, how long the float will be, etc.,” explains Allison Servey, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “We have to makes sure that we are in the width and length requirements.”
The construction team is in charge of everything under the float, including the chassis, drive train, steering and brakes. Students also design and build all of the mechanical systems for the animation.
This year, students wanted to impress the judges and the worldwide audience by making the giant chameleon change colors, which proved to be a challenge, according to Nelius. To make the chameleon appear to change colors, the team explored several ideas.
“Our first thought was to make the whole chameleon change color. Then we decided that wasn’t practical, so then we decided to do the stripes,” Nelius says. “We thought maybe we could spray a color-changing chemical on the flowers or maybe hit them with a certain light, but that’s a slow effect, and we wanted something you could see in a few seconds.”
Ultimately, the team devised a system using fishing line and bungee cords, with one layer of flowers pushing through a second layer then retracting. With two distinct colors, audiences should see the effect very quickly, he says.
On Dec. 22, the float will move to the Brookside Pavilion in Pasadena. The day after Christmas is the start of Deco Week, when hundreds of volunteers will add all of the natural plant material, including 60,000 flowers.
Nelius, who began volunteering with Rose Float the summer before his freshman year, says the program is unlike any other on a college campus. The Rose Float team is open to students in all majors.
“You’ll gain knowledge and experience from being in Rose Float, and your school knowledge to back that up,” Nelius says. “But you don’t have a manual telling you exactly what to do. The challenges are always new.
“You can get a lot of technical experience with handyman tools and power tools but you also get a lot of the soft skills that I’ve heard companies are looking for – good team players, good communicators, taking on a project without much guidance. When you move up to a chair or the president position, you’ll also get a lot of project management experience,” he says.
During a 69-year partnership, the Cal Poly Universities team has won 56 awards. The team is known for innovation in float design, being the first builder to use hydraulics on the float (1968), fiber optics (1982) and computers (1978).
“What’s most exciting for me now is watching our float go down the route,” Servey says.