Counting the Days

Cal Poly engineering students work to install an Advent calendar at the Cambria Christmas Market. Pictured are, left to right, Sigrid Derickson, Oma Skyrus, Danny Clifton and Silvia Calinov.

A team of mechanical engineering students blasted Christmas music on campus as they brainstormed a large, motorized Advent calendar that will be featured at this year’s Cambria Christmas Market.

“It was a holiday jam,” said Sigrid Derickson, a mechanical engineering senior. “Funny thing is, it happened in March. We were sitting around listening to Christmas music, and everyone probably thought we were a bunch of weirdos.”

Eight months later, their efforts will be a new highlight of the eighth annual market, described as a Central Coast “Winter Wonderland.” Based on Christmas markets in Europe that date back to the Middle Ages, The Cambria Christmas Market, housed primarily at the Cambria Pines Lodge, features 2 million lights in dioramas and displays, plus artisan vendors, food, live music and more. 

The calendar project is sponsored by the lodge, which operates the market. About five years ago, another team of Cal Poly engineering students built a popular 12 Days of Christmas installation that has been a feature of the market ever since. 

“The 12 Days of Christmas is one of our most popular displays,” said Mike Arnold, the market’s coordinator. “We have had to move it a few times to accommodate the groups that gather around each time it goes off.”

With that in mind, the market asked Cal Poly to create another project.

The Advent calendar created by ME students will become a permanent fixture at the Cambria Christmas Market. 

“What they said was, ‘We want an Advent calendar, and it should look like a German village,’” said Lee McFarland, a Cal Poly mechanical engineering lecturer and faculty advisor for the project. 

Advent calendars, which offer a fun way to count the days until Christmas, originated in the early 1900s. They typically appear as wall calendars with “windows” that open for each day of the month, revealing a different image. But some calendars get much bigger.

The Cal Poly calendar is massive. It is roughly 14 feet tall, 20 feet long and four feet deep and will feature 25 days represented by boxes. Each box contains a playful diorama, which includes a shooting star, a polar bear snow globe, Santa’s workshop, an ice skater, a hula dancer and other animated scenes of the season. Seventeen boxes feature moving parts, and all play music related to the respective diorama. Songs include such classics as “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

“The whole team is excited to see it in action,” Arnold said. “It is located near our Santa House, so guests will be able to enjoy while they wait to see Santa.”

The Advent calendar created by Cal Poly students will be 14-foot high and 20-foot long, featuring holiday music and moving dioramas.

The project employs mechanical, electrical and audio designs with motors, switching relays and a credit card-size Raspberry Pi computer that uses a programing language called Python. The students manufactured their diorama designs on campus using laser cutters and computer-controlled CNC machines.

While students were given a few project parameters, they devised the final design.

“It really let us use our creative side,” said Derickson, who graduated from Atascadero High School in 2014.

Like the 12 Days of Christmas display, this year’s Advent addition will become a permanent feature of the popular market, McFarland said. 

The other mechanical engineering students on the team include: Danny Clifton, from Reno, Nevada; Tyler Koski, from Irvine California; and Oma Skyrus, of San Mateo California. The four students started working on it last January as a senior project. These projects, a requirement for graduation, are designed to give students hands-on experience, said Peter Schuster, a mechanical engineering professor.

“They get to apply what they have learned throughout their education to a specific project,” he said. “The experience forces them to dive deeper into topics in order to get the job done, just as they will as engineering professionals.” 

The students took the calendar to Cambria and installed the boxes over the 3-day Veterans Day weekend. This week, they will connect the mechanical parts, lights, music and train set so the entire project will be ready when the market opens to the public on Friday, Nov. 29.

While the calendar marks the beginning of a new attraction for the market, for the team, Saturday means the end of their nearly yearlong effort.

“We put a lot of hours into it,” Derickson said.

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.

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