A volunteer welds a float decoration in its beginning stages. | Courtesy of Shanti Herzog

The air is filled with a sense of quiet determination amidst the whirring of welding tools and blaring alternative music. Eyes stare intently out of safety goggles at whatever task is being executed, and bodies move swiftly and skillfully, weaving around equipment and peers. The Rose Float Lab is alive.

Since 1949, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona have combined forces to create one float entry for the annual Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade held on New Year’s Day. The Cal Poly floats are the only self-built student floats, and work is done entirely by volunteers on both campuses.

The 2018 Rose Parade theme is “Making a Difference,” Cal Poly SLO and Cal Poly Pomona which are portraying in their 70th entry, “Dreams Take Flight.” The float will display three baby animals — a koala, a red panda and an otter — flying airplanes through a starry sky.  The planes will feature stamps with images of old floats in honor of past creations. The concept is a tribute to students’ potential for personal success in college.

“We like to be different from the other floats … We want to make the float become its own world,” Design Co-Chair and biology sophomore Yayoi Marumo said.

In San Luis Obispo, float preparation takes place in the Rose Float Lab, located in Building 50L.  Saturdays are the designated “open lab days,” until Oct. 21, when San Luis Obispo float members will begin to alternate campus visits with Pomona. Each university has half of the float frame, so visits will allow for them to be connected and for the float to be worked on as a whole. Until then, the back half of the float frame sits outside the warehouse, waiting to be joined with its counterpart in Pomona.

True to the Learn by Doing motto, the Rose Float attracts a community of artists and engineers who thrive off hands-on, innovative practices.  They have the freedom to collaborate and create with one another to accomplish objectives.

Rose Float Construction Chair Kendall Searing began participating in the program seven years ago and fell in love with the engineering aspect, which allowed him to tackle technical challenges.

“There’s that little bit of pressure that makes it thrilling, makes it a challenge,” mechanical engineering graduate student Searing said. “I’ve done it every year. It’s part of my Cal Poly experience.”

Both universities grow flower fields to supply decoration materials.  In San Luis Obispo, the most used flower is statice, which is grown and processed on campus.

Roses, gerber daisies, straw flowers, beans and seeds are also widely used.  The Cal Poly float is one of the few California-grown floats, with 85 percent of flower material from the state.

In terms of mechanical parts, the same frames and engines are used each year.  Donations are received from local areas and community members to help fund the project.

San Luis Obispo’s leadership team is composed of 28 people, with an additional 30 volunteers. The whole group is managed by the advisor, Josh D’acquisto, and the president, Ali Harake. The executive team is comprised of the vice president and the department chairs, who help the president with keeping schedules and tasks in check. The three departments are design, decorations and construction. Each works on different aspects of the float and follows a specific timeline to stay on track.

“If I was doing this just by myself, I would literally die,” Rose Float president and mechanical engineering senior Ali Harake said. “The cool thing is this program is very self-sufficient; we all have our roles, we all have our responsibilities and we know what we want to do and how we want to do it.”

Although the making of the float is a volunteer effort, there is never a shortage of hands or motivation.  In addition to dedicating their Saturdays to the Rose Float, the team is constantly communicating with one another and their equals in Pomona through texts and video calls. They look forward to the four-hour drives to Pomona, where they will be working and creating with the entire crew.

“Everyone that’s in this program really wants to be in this program, and that’s just the kind of mentality that’s been passed down from leadership to leadership team,” Harake said. “Going from nothing to something amazing, something that everyone in the world can see, is really rewarding.”

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