Lost in Vegas

Science Formal, an annual gala hosted by Queen’s engineering students. This view is from the second-story of a pirate ship constructed by students for the event. Perched ontop of the mast is the Sci ’13 crest. (Source: Sam Christian)

By Catherine Owsik

Welcome to Las Vegas, Kingston, Ontario.” Well, that wasn’t exactly announced, but on Saturday, Nov. 3, a chunk of Queen’s campus was transformed into a smaller version of Sin City for the night. It was Science Formal, an annual gala held inside Grant and Kingston Halls that may be likened to the prom of Queen’s University; only fourth-year engineering students and their dates can attend and there’s a lot of mayhem before, during and after the event.

The twist is that Science Formal isn’t just another prom; it’s an engineering spectacle, complete with rigorous planning, insightful creativity and hard labour. The labour is one of the most impressive aspects to Science Formal. Everything inside the venue, from the murals to the chairs, is hand-made by engineering students and their dates prior to the event. Unless they request and receive a reduction, each engineering student must complete 40 hours of work; a non-engineering date must complete 15 hours. In addition to this, the Science Formal committee spends 13 months planning the event. It’s a lot of work for one night, but I can see why it’s worth it.

The Build-Up

For me, the first buzz of Science Formal starts with girls gossiping about dates. It’s early September, and I’m still trying to figure out my fourth-year courses, but all of a sudden my friends have new worries. Who will accompany them to Science Formal? What will they wear? Where will they go for dinner?  We gossip in circles. It’s generally unclear what is going to happen on that special day, but the excitement builds up and hopes start to rise.

It’s also the moment when we start to discuss this year’s theme: Las Vegas. How do you emulate such a diverse and frantic city? Every year the third-year engineering students vote on a theme for their Science Formal, which will occur during the following school year. The theme mostly applies to the venue’s design, but some people also make plans to dress appropriately.

The Golden Ticket

There’s one major hitch in the plan. Although we’ve all become excited about the event, there is a maximum number of students that can legally be inside the venue. And as it stands, Grant Hall’s capacity is lower than the number of people that want to attend. By late September, everyone is frightfully aware of this fact.

Josh Randall, the Science Formal Convener for this year’s event, tells me that the organization and construction of Science Formal doesn’t change much year by year, unless they add specific improvements. “The only thing I would say is that this year we’ve really focused on being organized,” Randall, Sci ’13, said.

Randall adds that this year the Science Formal committee, which consists of 38 students, was able to facilitate communication with attendees through online outlets like Facebook, Twitter and an improved website. A quick online search shows this is true, however the Facebook group has also become the outlet for some frustrated students.

Unfortunately, an event this large has an inherent problem of organization. Take, for example, ticket sales. The Sci ’13 students are the first to purchase their tickets and, for the most part, I hear it goes smoothly. The sale of tickets for non-engineering dates, on the other hand, is a totally different story.

Tara Russell, Art Sci ’13, has been in a relationship with an engineering student for quite some time. She bought her Science Formal dress — a stunning, floor-length, one-shoulder, white gown — after last year’s prom season in preparation for the night. So of course, when rumours of limited tickets spread, she reacts with a plan.

“I got to the ILC at 8 a.m.,” Russell said. She was the first person in line. “I heard that in previous years there had been lots of people that didn’t get tickets, and I really didn’t want to be one of those people.”

That day, ticket sales are scheduled to begin at the ILC (Integrated Learning Centre) at 7:30 p.m. But because tickets are a first-come, first-serve basis, eager students form a long line by noon. Most students, dates and engineers alike, sit in an orderly fashion through the halls, completing readings and assignments. Some students even cluster around laptops to watch the live stream of Felix Baumgartner’s stratosphere jump.

“I think the process makes sense, it’s fair because the people that really wanted tickets got in line early,” Russell said. “Though maybe it should be held in a place that can accommodate more people, as it became a fire hazard.”

By 2 p.m. the line is already longer than the number of tickets available (about 100), so the Science Formal committee begins selling tickets early. The process is slow, but simple.

At the end of the day, however, many people leave the ILC without a ticket. Over the next few weeks, some waitlisted guests are contacted saying a ticket is now available for them. Consequently, these lucky guests may have just one week to find a dress or suit, book appointments and complete the 15 hours of construction or art work.

The Logistics

As previously mentioned, each Science Formal attendee must complete a certain number of work hours. Failure to complete these hours results in an additional cost of  $10 or $15 per missed hour (depending on where the hour was missed). Hypothetically, if an engineering student wished to attend the event without doing any work, he or she would have to pay an additional $450. This is on top of the mandatory $120 ticket. Even though 40 hours is precious time to any fourth-year student, it turns out saving $450 is a fair trade-off.

The Work

For the most part, students work on the construction and art for Science Formal in a rented warehouse about four kilometers away from campus. Generally, the warehouse is open nights on weekdays and all day on weekends. To get there, students sign up for a shuttle (organized by the Science Formal committee), which takes them to and from the site, or they find other methods of transportation.

My first trek out to the warehouse is interesting: my date and I choose to bike there. When we arrive at the site I notice there aren’t any other bikes locked up, which makes sense because I am so out of breath, but I do see many cars in
the lot.

The first thing I notice upon entering the warehouse is not, as I’d expected, a flurry of sound, which is currently a blend of dubstep music, table saws and mild chatter. I notice the bright lights and the warmth. The open room is large enough to hold maybe up to five school buses, but the students working around me have molded it into a comfortable workspace. One half of the room is sectioned off as a construction area; everyone in this space has necessary personal protective equipment (hard hat, work boots, etc). There are about 10 students in this area and they each handle construction equipment with ease. I casually stroll over to the art half of the room. This space is busier; there are constantly new construction pieces to paint, wire-frame structures to create and murals to decorate.

Each Science Formal Art Manager has designed decorations and murals for a section of Grant Hall or Kingston Hall. In total there are over 200 murals, each one measuring eight by 10 feet. In order to properly finish these in time, the managers have their designs traced out and marked with numbers that associate with a specific paint colour. In this way, volunteer engineers and dates may easily paint without adding their own “creativity.” Even toddlers can paint by numbers. The work is tedious, but with good company the 10 or 30 hours is eventually completed.

The Final Week

For the six days immediately prior to the event the construction and art projects are moved from the warehouse onto campus. It’s a frantic time dubbed Final Week. Grant Hall is open all day, and the work seems never ending. In the halls we cut vines, paint poker chips, fold tissue flowers… and meanwhile hundreds of engineers are working together to construct a two-story pirate ship (among other pieces) right in the middle of Grant Hall’s auditorium.

Grant Hall has been the main venue for Science Formal since the event came to campus decades ago. It’s fitting because the clock-tower building is so iconic of our university, and the large room is fitting for a night of dancing and mingling. And, as Randall said, because Grant Hall is attached to Kingston Hall, which features smaller themed rooms, people are able to switch between crowded dance floors and intimate rooms with ease.

“What makes the night special for attendees is the level of detail and commitment we put into it,” he said. “It’s not just a dance, it’s an experience.”

Each room in Kingston Hall is decorated with a different design. There’s a casino, Caesar’s Palace and even a tempting vault. It all takes your breath away. Unfortunately, even with limited ticket sales, there are still too many attendees to have them all inside Grant Hall at once. So if you slip into Kingston Hall to admire the detailed art, there’s a chance the main room in Grant Hall could reach capacity and leave you standing in line.

The Night

It’s finally arrived. It’s the first Saturday of November, which is when Science Formal always falls, and I take the morning to forget about assignments and deadlines. Each engineering discipline has their own Wine and Cheese Mixer, and as 3 p.m. rolls around I head to Clark Hall Pub on campus with some of my close friends. The Wine and Cheese is a lovely tradition that allows friends to mingle and relax. I even see a mechanical engineering professor dressed up with his students. One of my friends notes that this is what he is looking forward to most out of the entire night, because he thinks Grant Hall will be too hectic. This is where he can relax with close friends.

Specific groups then break off for dinner reservations around Kingston. My group indulges at Chez Piggy, a fancy French restaurant, and eventually we return to campus for the opening of Grant Hall at 9 p.m.

The night is spectacular. There’s laughter, dancing, food, and of course drama, but it all adds up to one joyous night that I’m sure no attendee will forget. Everyone admires the decorations; many laugh when they see that one item they spent countless hours working on. I hope everyone made it to the top of the pirate ship at least once, because that is a very special view of Grant Hall. I exit the building with sore feet and I can’t help but feel thankful. I know this year isn’t over, but as with prom, it feels like one more sealing kiss goodbye to my school.

Three years ago the class of Sci ’13 met during Frosh Week, and back then it was pretty easy to question their ability to work together. They almost didn’t become a year when it took them over three hours to defeat the Grease Pole. But now, they have come together for another major obstacle. They worked together for months to plan, build and decorate a breathtaking night. And they did it very successfully — they channeled Las Vegas’ excitement and energy into one beautiful event — congratulations Sci ’13, you are now a class that is ready to graduate.

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