PopSci's Guide To The 30 Coolest College Classes in the Country | Popular Science

PopSci's Guide To The 30 Coolest College Classes in the Country

Here's where you can learn to blow stuff up, scale 150-foot trees, make toys and catch lightning--all for college credit

Why subject yourself to the dull buzz of fluorescent lights and endless data sets? Play with plastic explosives, dive with jellyfish, or make video games instead! These schools will make you wish class would never end.

Over the years, PopSci has pulled together annual lists of the coolest, funnest college labs, the places where we would like to have spent our youth tinkering, exploring, and learning. Here, we've collected the ultimate list of all the great labs we've ever covered.

Launch the gallery for our full illustrated list of the coolest college labs in the country.

Missouri University of Science and Technology: Experimental Mine

Career: Industrial demolitions Learn to: Blow things up extremely well Students learn how to implode buildings, design fireworks displays, blast smooth slices of stone of quarry walls, run pyrotechnics at rock concerts, and set off special effects fireballs on movie sets. As you might expect, the program's screening process rivals the CIA's. Candidates must submit to an extensive background check, and non-citizens may have to shake hands with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Missouri S&T also offers an MS in explosives engineering, the first formal program of its kind in the country. The focus of an MS ranges from shaped charges, small precision bombs that either slice like a knife or punch holes in metal, to topics like blast mitigation for the military and seismic changes in rock, for better mining. Phone: 573-341-6406 Web site: MST.edu

John B. Carnett

George Washington University: National Crash Analysis Center

Career: Safety engineer Learn to: Propel a sedan at 60 mph into a roadside planter At the NCAC, every student in the school's transportation-safety graduate program gets a car and instructions to tear it down to piles of nuts and bolts, struts and glass sheets. Then the student rebuilds the vehicle in a computer model so he can virtually crash it again and again. (Students also help with real crash tests.) The lab works with auto manufacturers and the Department of Transportation to inform safety standards for cars and "roadside furniture," such as light poles, barriers and signs. The current curriculum confronts a recent problem on the freeways: the huge population of SUVs, minivans and other small trucks. Students are trying to figure out whether objects like highway barriers should be changed to reflect the size of the vehicles likely to be plowing into them in the future. Phone: 703-726-3600 Web site: GWU

John B. Carnett

University of Alabama at Huntsville: Propulsion Research Center

Career: Rocket scientist Learn to: Make things that go very fast and very far Each year, 20 aeronautical- and mechanical-engineering students get eight months to design, construct, and fly a rocket to a height of exactly 5,280 feet. These aren't hobby rockets, which typically fly to less than 1,000 feet (any higher requires an FAA permit). a€œConsider that an a€˜A' engine is half as strong as a a€˜B' engine, and so on,a€ says engineering professor Marlow Moser. a€œThe rockets you shoot off in the park: A and B engines. Our rockets: L engines.a€ Last year's class built a 37-pound, 8.5-foot-long carbon-fiber projectile with advanced data-collection systems onboard. The nosecone carried a video camera and avionics to record the rocket's flight path and other information; the aft end, temperature and strain sensors. Students enter their rocket in a NASA-sponsored student rocket-launching competition and present a report to the space agency's scientists and engineers as if they were a company vying for a contract. Although the presentation is just an academic exercise, several rocket-crew alums go on to work for NASA, which has its Marshall Space Flight Center just down the road from UAH. a€œHere, students are playing with fire and explosives all day,a€ Moser says. a€œIt doesn't get much better than that.a€ Phone: 256-824-7200 Web site: UAH

John B. Carnett

Northern Kentucky University: Barton Lab

Career: Geologist Learn to: Study Martian living conditions here on Earth If you want to be one of the six lucky undergrads to get off the waiting list and into Hazel Barton's course, you'd better like tight spaces, heights, the dark, bats and getting dirtya€”and that's just to get to the bacteria. Unlike microbiology majors at other schools, the ones laboring over microscopes and petri dishes all day, Barton's students study extremophile microbes where they thrive: caves. Most of Barton's students cave close to home, measuring groundwater pollution and studying links between microbes and cave formations. But some, with NASA assistance, accompany Barton to explore the longest quartzite cave on the planet, a rare 10-mile-long labyrinth of pink and amber sandstone on Venezuela's Roraima plateau. It teems with microbes that researchers think could provide clues to what life might look like on Mars. Most caves are formed by limestone, a carbonate rock. The rock of Roraima, however, is mostly silicate, which is also found on Mars. The team will collect the nitrogen-eating, ammonia-spewing microbes and other strange organisms that live in the walls. Back at the lab, students will observe the bacteria's behavior under varying conditions, gathering information that could help NASA hone its search for extraterrestrial life. Phone: 859-572-1405 Web site: CaveScience

John B. Carnett

University of Maryland: Space Systems Laboratory

Career: Spacesuit designer
Learn to: Test out new astronaut gear in zero gravity

Students don space suits and climb into a neutral buoyancy tank to conduct low- and zero-gravity tests on next-gen astronaut gear, as well as space- and deep-sea-bound robots. Maryland's 50-foot-diameter, 367,000-gallon tank is one of only two in the U.S., and the only one at a university.

Students have gone on to work on the International Space Station and the Cassini and Magellan planetary probes, among others.

Phone: 301-405-7353
Web site: ssl.umd.edu

Colorado State University: Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory

Career: Mechanical engineer Learn to: Make a 2,300hp engine stronger and cleaner Take it from CSU postdoc Sachin Joshi, you haven't really seen an engine until you've climbed inside one. At the EECL, students retrofit industrial engines that reach two stories in height. One of the largest is a two-stroke, 440-horsepower combustion engine, typically used to compress natural gas and push it through underground pipes. In the lab's 17 years, the technologies it has developed for this type of engine alone (including a now-ubiquitous fuel-injection system) have reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 120 million modern cars off the highway. Joshi and his students are now working on a 17-ton Caterpillar natural-gas-powered generator that's capable of providing electricity for up to 1,200 homes. Utilities want to hook up the 1.8-megawatt machines to the grid in the middle of cities (to save the energy otherwise lost in transit), so they need to run clean. Caterpillar donated one to EECL. The team has already created an ignition system in which a laser travels through fiber-optic cables to optical spark plugs. It burns fuel more efficiently than the stock ignition while emitting fewer nitrogen oxides. Phone: 970-491-4793 Web site: Colorado State

John B. Carnett

Texas Tech University: Wind Science and Engineering Research Center

Career: Atmospheric scientist Learn to: Hurl planks at walls to measure hurricane damage In addition to launching projectiles, students in WiSE's Debris Impact Testing Lab throw themselves into the middle of real hurricanes and tornados. Before Katrina hit, students from Texas Tech were on the scene, setting up a mobile research center to take dozens of measurements, including wind velocity and the intensity of the storm's eye. Their instruments were the only ones to survive the storm intact, and now the WiSE possesses the only complete record of the intensity of Katrina's eye at landfall. Based on the lab testing, and forays into disaster scenes during and after storms, the center was also responsible for today's more accurate F-scale for measuring the force of tornados, called the Enhanced F-Scale. It reflects the finding that lower-speed winds do a lot more damage than previously believed. When students aren't steeped in destruction, they're figuring out how to make wind power more efficient or designing homes that will hold up better in the next Katrina. Phone: 806-742-3476 Web site: Texas Tech

John B. Carnett

Cornell University: Game Design Initiative

Career: Videogame designer Learn to: Create your own game At the first Ivy League school to offer a minor in game design, students take classes like "Foundations of Artificial Intelligence" and "Computer Animation." The final project: building their own game. (The school's design software keeps code-writing to a minimum.) Each class holds a video exhibition open to the entire university. Alumni have gone on to work on blockbusters like The Sims and Spore. Phone: 607-255-9188 Web site: Cornell

Courtesy of the Department of Energy

University of California at Merced: Dawson Lab

Career: Marine biologist
Learn to: Dive with jellyfish

The schedule for the grad students and postdocs in the Dawson Lab this year sounds like an extended spring break, with scuba diving, snorkeling and speed-boating in places like the Gulf of Mexico, the California shoreline and the island nation of Palau. But the work they'll doa€”trying to explain what the lab's namesake, evolutionary biologist Michael Dawson, calls a€œthe dark energy of the oceansa€a€”is far from trivial.

Dawson and his students hope to solve one of the most puzzling aspects of the world's oceans: where they get all their energy. Ocean mixing is the process whereby turbulence and currents redistribute heat and bring nitrogen, carbon and other elements from one part of a body of water to another. But scientists have done the math, and to see mixing to the degree they do, the ocean must be getting extra energy from some unknown source.

One candidate is the jellies. In swarms, the movements of even small animals might have a serious effect. And Palau's Jellyfish Lake, a 12-acre sea landlocked from the ocean some 15,000 years ago and now home to millions of golden jellies, is the perfect laboratory for testing that theory. If the sum of the animal-created turbulence has a strong enough mixing effect here, then it might have a comparable effect in the oceans. Last year, Dawson's team and its California Institute of Technology collaborators, funded by the National Science Foundation, became the first to suggest the link between jelly-swarm turbulence and ocean energy. The students spend six to 10 hours a day for months at a time in the water, swimming alongside the jellies and measuring the velocity of the tiny eddies they create as they make their twice-daily migration across the lake. It's one of the few places in the world where researchers can get this close to an entire population of jellyfish.

Phone: 209-228-4056
Web site: mnd.ucmerced.edu

Christoph Gerigk, courtesy GEO

Carnegie Mellon University: Robotics Institute

Career: Robot designer
Learn to: Construct autonomous SUVs

Carnegie Mellon is a robot Mecca, home to 'bot builders for 29 years. The first university to award a robotics Ph.D., it now offers a minor for undergrads, who put together water-striding mini robots or turn wrenches on autonomous SUVs for the DARPA Urban Challenge, where CMU took first place last year.

Phone: 412-268-3818
Web site: ri.cmu.edu

Courtesy of Mike Dischner / Carnegie Mellon University

New College Florida: Peruvian Amazon Field Course

Career: Rainforest biologist Learn to: Follow rare animals up 150-foot trees Watching sloths sleep sounds boring, but try it suspended 20 stories up in a rainforest and, says recent graduate and biologist Bryson Voirin, a€œit will change your life.a€ More than half the world's terrestrial species live in the treetops, and many animals never touch the ground. Unfortunately, most scientists never leave the ground, says canopy-climbing pioneer and ecologist Meg Lowman, which explains why they've documented fewer than 2 percent of forest canopies. New College students begin on Sarasota's subtropical trees as early as freshman year. Students learn to conduct biodiversity surveys or radio-tag animals. Voirin, who tracked tree-climbing sloths as an undergrad now climbs after them in Panama for the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, collecting data that could help unravel the mysteries of human sleep. Phone: 941-487-4547 Web site: New College Florida

John B. Carnett

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Toy Lab

Career: Toy designer Learn to: Build toys and test them on actual kids You think college is all fun and games, well it isa€”if you're one of 90 lucky students in MIT's most popular freshman elective. Each spring, 15 teams of six get a theme and $750 to design and prototype a toy or game. Past inventions include a one-wheeled motorized skateboard and a futuristic game of tag. With a prototyping shop at their disposal, students can make almost anything. At the end of the day, however, play testing determines success. Throughout the semester, teams hand their prototypes to visiting kids, whose feedback means more than any grade. a€œOne thing I've learned,a€ says senior Michael Snively, whose class experience got him a summer gig at Hasbro. a€œYou can never predict what kids will do with your toy.a€ Phone: 617-823-6016 Web site: MIT

John B. Carnett

University of Florida: Lightning Research Laboratory

Career: Building lightning-resistant objects Learn to: Catch lightninga€”millions of volts of it At the Lightning Lab, a group of students and researchers work around the clock all summer to trigger lightning during passing storms. A thin wire attached to a rocket acts as a kind of fuse, coaxing a bolt of lightning down the so-called plasma channel to the grounded metal launcher. There the lab's sensor networks help solve such mysteries as the cause of each stroke's unique electromagnetic field, or how a direct hit will affect underground cables. But triggering lightning is not as easy as it sounds. Lab co-director Vladimir Rakov says the students are lucky if they get 40 strokes of lightning per season, and many of those could happen during the same storm. Five years ago, students in the Lightning Lab helped make one of the decade's biggest discoveries: that most lightning emits x-rays. Today, students are still trying to figure out why by building new x-ray-sensor networks. Phone: 352-846-3949 Web site: University of Florida

Courtesy V.A. Rakov/University of Florida

Montana State University: Subzero Science and Engineering Laboratory

Career: Antarctic explorer Learn to: Look for life in 250,000-year-old ice cores This fall, students will step into a a€“80°F laboratory to study stuff in deep freeze. One project will look for life in 250,000-year-old ice cores taken from two miles underneath the Antarctic. Others will study the best way to keep winter roads ice-free, and research the flow of snow to better predict avalanches. Phone: 406-994-2111 Web site: Montana State

Kelly Gorham / www.montana.edu

Stanford University: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Career: Condensed-matter physicist Learn to: Capture 3-D images of molecules using powerful x-rays Every summer, undergrads join Nobel Prizea€“winning scientists here to send electrons down the longest linear accelerator in the world at close to 670 million mph, producing superpowerful x-rays. These x-ray beams are used to create 3-D images of individual molecules. Phone: 650-926-3300 Web site: Stanford

University of California at Berkeley: Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Career: Alien hunter Learn to: Create software that looks for signs of extraterrestrials The programs makes use of SETI@home, a supercomputer which works by tapping the power of millions of ordinary PCs all over the Web. It analyzes data from radio telescopes looking for signals from intelligent life. Berkeley SETI students help improve the search algorithms and refine the software that ties all the computers together. Phone: 510-642-6997 Web site: Berkeley

Utah State University: Center for Integrated BioSystems

Career: Genetic engineer
Learn to: Clone a mule

In 2003, scientists at Utah State were the first in the world to clone a hybrid animala€”a mule, the typically sterile offspring of a donkey and a horse. The research ultimately spawned commercial equine-cloning labs. Now students and faculty churn out up to 600 cloned embryos a week, primarily for genetics research.

Phone: 435-797-2753
Web site: biosystems.usu.edu

Jeannine Mauch Huenemann

New York University: Interactive Telecommunications Program

Career: Interactive artist
Learn to: Design interactive videos for a 120-foot screen

Students here design interactive video for a 120-foot, high-resolution screen inside architect Frank Gehry’s InterActiveCorp building in New York, typically used to display art and advertising. One student project used animations of bees flocking to flowers to visualize complex stock market data.

Phone: 212-998-1880
Web site: itp.nyu.edu

John Mahoney

Stanford University: Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability

Career: Development entrepreneur
Learn to: Build low-cost incubators for premature babies in Nepal

Students here take workshops ranging from welding and plastics- and metal-forming to sewing and finance before heading to countries like Nepal, India and Myanmar to identify a local problem they can engineer a solution to. Take the baby incubator designed by the 2007 student team, for example. It's aimed at the 20 million premature and low-birth-weight infants born every year in remote locations and costs just $25 (standard hospital incubators cost $20,000). Now being developed by a spin-off company called Embrace, the incubator looks like a sleeping bag but contains a sealed pouch filled with a material that can regulate body temperature without using power or moving parts. Another company, D.light Design, which grew out of a 2006 Stanford team, is replacing polluting kerosene lanterns with solar LED lamps for the 1.6 billion people worldwide who don't have access to electricity.

Phone: 650-736-1025
Web site: extreme.stanford.edu

New Mexico Tech: Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center

Career: Bomb expert
Learn to: Create your own diamonds, using tons of explosives

EMRTC's home is 40 square miles of uninhabited desert wilderness so remote that dozens of explosives tests-or "shots"-can take place in one day. Founded in the wake of World War II, EMRTC, one of the country's foremost lab for explosives research, has everything from training grounds for mine-sniffing robots to areas where students blow up cars, tanks and buildings. Typical labs include packing several thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate around a container of carbon to manufacture industrial diamonds, or examining the safety of structures and substances that may be exposed to explosions in the real world. Students work on every aspect of the research, including setting up shots, analyzing data, and conceiving new tests.

Phone: 575-835-5312
Web site: emrtc.nmt.edu

John B. Carnett

University of Houston: Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture

Career: Space architect
Learn to: Design lunar pods for NASA

Luke Schmick already has a pretty cool job teaching astronauts how to operate the space shuttle. What could top that? Designing a spacecraft from scratch, says the 24-year-old part-time engineer, one of five grad students attending what's billed as the only space-architecture master's degree program on Earth.

There are the vehicles that may someday take us to space, and then there's everything else that we'll need for off-planet living and workinga€”that's what the students of SICSA design, often at the behest of NASA or its contractors. The job requires more engineering know-how than terrestrial architecture does, explains Larry Toups, NASA's head of lunar habitation systems and a SICSA alum. a€œStudents have to understand and factor in the ergonomic effects of walking in one-sixth gravity, for example,a€ he says. Another challenge is protecting crews from the intense radiation in space.

For Earth orbit, students developed plans for an expandable, inflatable laboratory. And for Mars, they've built models (some digital, some physical) for all the elements of a permanent basea€”living quarters, research labs, hydroponic gardens, even the ground-exploration vehicles.

a€œA lot of what we come up with at NASA ends up being very engineered. The designs may work, but they're complex,a€ Toups says. a€œThe students at SICSA tend to find simpler solutions, designs that are more easily deployable or require less power. They make us look at things in a fresh light.a€

Phone: 713-743-2255
Web site: sicsa.uh.edu

Pathik Shah/University of Houston

Colorado School of Mines: Humanitarian Engineering Program

Career: Globe-trotting engineer
Learn to: Generate electricity for rural villages in Ecuador

To earn this 18-credit minor, CSM students take engineering classes focused on solving humanitarian challenges, including groundwater mapping and sustainable energy systems. The program began partly in response to industry demand for engineers with cultural awareness. During their senior year, they have the opportunity to participate in humanitarian design projects overseas or close to home, such as on Native American reservations. One recent project found a way to generate electricity in rural villages in Ecuador using parts that could be manufactured and maintained by the villagers. Another team developed a mobile bicycle pump in Ghana to help farmers get water for irrigation.

Phone: 303-273-3658
Web site: humanitarian.mines.edu

Brennan Hodkinson

University of California at San Diego: California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology

Career: Virtual archaeologist
Learn to: Excavate a fortress in Jordan using virtual reality

It's something you'd expect to find in Lara Croft's mansion: a pentagon-shaped room projecting a 3-D virtual-reality model of an excavated 57,000-square-foot fortress from the 10th century B.C. The StarCAVE is the world's most advanced virtual-reality room, with 34 high-definition projectors that display images around and beneath the user, totally immersing students in their data. With a handheld controller, they can walk through buildings, rotate artifacts, or rise above the model for a bird's-eye fly-through.

Students spend months at a time investigating and recording in three dimensions the real site in Jordan. In San Diego, they use the data to build the virtual model of the entire fortress. a€œWhat exactly the huge fortress was used for, that's the big question,a€ explains grad student Kyle Knabb. a€œThe answer, we hope we'll find in the CAVE.a€

Phone: 858-822-4998
Web site: calit2.net

Courtesy Erik Jepsen/Calit2

College for Creative Studies: Transportation Design

Career: Mass-transit designer
Learn to: Design a hydrogen-fueled car with wind turbines attached

Chasing a degree in the auto industry might seem a little backward right now, but CCS is the place where companies from Hyundai to Fiat sponsor projects for their most forward-looking concepts. It also places more designers in the industry than any other institution; alums include heads of design at divisions of Toyota, GM, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz.

Last year, when Hyundai challenged seniors to come up with green cars of the future, Dong Tran designed a particularly ambitious vehicle: an aerodynamic hydrogen-fueled car with wheels like wind turbines. A hydrogen fuel cell powers four independent hub-mounted electric motors, cooled by air drawn in through the center of the rims as the wheels rotate. a€œThe cooler the better,a€ Tran says. a€œDissipating heat prolongs life span and increases efficiency.a€

Tran rendered his concept car using 3-D modeling programs, but students often build scale prototypes as well. This year, the school added a new master's program in transportation design, one of only a few in the country, that will combine business classes with design.

Phone: 313-664-7425
Web site: collegeforcreativestudies.edu/hs/academics/transportation

Dong Tran/College for Creative Studies

U.S. Geological Survey: Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Career: Geophysicist Learn to: Measure lava flow on volcanoes As many as 20 students compete for each volunteer position working and living on one of the world's most active volcanos. Up to eight students at a time sleep in a house in a national park and wake up before the crack of dawn to hike into the wilderness, mapping a region that might soon begin oozing molten rock. The payoff: helping elite researchers measure some extremely powerful underground action, including the bulging shapes created by underground magma flow and the seismic activity that spurs eruptions. Says scientist-in-charge Jim Kauahikaua, "For many, it's their first experience with volcano work, and it changes their lives." Phone: 808-967-7328 Website: U.S. Geological Survey

Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey/Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Penn State University: Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship

Career: Community-based engineer
Learn to: Create biodiesel fuela€”in Kenya

Penn State's program focuses not only on creating products but employment as well. In a current project in Kenya, students work with citizens to make biodiesel from local crops and use the fuel to power a low-cost portable generator (also designed in the program) to produce electricity for the village. Surplus fuel will be sold to outside markets to provide a steady source of income for the community.

Phone: 814-865-5471
Web site: www.engr.psu.edu/hese

University of Hawaii at Manoa: Marine Option Program

Career: Scientific Diver
Learn to: Tag animals near a coral reef in Hawaii

Undergraduate Jackie Troller plans to spend the better part of next summer in a century-old shipwreck. She will camp on the western coast of the Big Island kayak 1,000 yards offshore, and dive the remains of the SS Maui, a steamship that ran aground in 1917. Ah, the drudgery of the Marine Option Program.

The MOP curriculum reads like a Club Med itinerary: snorkeling, diving, boating, bird-watching, even painting the sea. Undergrads of all majors can apply to the 16-credit program, the hands-on equivalent of a minor. MOP prepares students for any undersea ventures; Senior Christian Clark now works installing underwater equipment for the school's shark lab. a€œThere would be 30 to 40 sharks swimming around me while I was working,a€ says Clark, who hopes to land a job as a scientific diver, like many alumni. a€œIt was amazing.a€

Phone: 808-956-8433
Web site: hawaii.edu/mop

Courtesy Jeffrey Kuwabara

North Carolina State University: Forensic Analysis Lab

Career: Forensic investigator
Learn to: Analyze human remains

Months after a county cleanup crew found a skeleton in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, forensic anthropologist Ann Ross and her students zeroed in on an incisor. It established what other investigators couldn't: that the deceased was Elizabeth Smallwood, the sixth victim of the Edgecombe serial killer.

When new cases come in, students help Ross recover bones and collect data, Factors they consider include preservation, as in a frozen pond, or exposure to the sun, all of which can help establish time since death. The bulk of the student's work- even the undergrads- is analyzing unidentified human remains to create what's called a biological profile. To establish ancestry, they look at facial structure or map the skull using 3-D software that Ross co-created. a€œIt's the element of mystery that gets them,a€ Ross says of her students. a€œBut I think it's being the voice for those who can no longer defend themselves that keeps them.a€

Phone: 919-515-9021
Web site: ncforensics.org

John B. Carnett

University of Wisconsin: Wisconsin National Primate Research Center

Career: Stem-cell researcher
Learn to: Observe monkeys for biomedical research

UWM's primate-research centera€”home to 1,300 rhesus monkeysa€”has logged both biomedical and behavioral breakthroughs in fields such as socialization and aging, as well as HIV and Parkinson's disease. Students aid stem-cell scientists in research on human and monkey embryonic cells.

Phone: 608-263-3500
Web site: primate.wisc.edu

Jeff Miller / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Boston University: National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory

Career: Bird-flu researcher
Learn to: Study pathogens with leading infectious-disease specialists

BU's new biosafety-level-4 facility, opening this year, will be one of only a handful of labs where researchers can study contagious killers like smallpox and Ebola. Undergrads won't log time in the full-body suits, but they will conduct pathogen research in state-of-the-art labs and learn from top infectious-disease scientists.

Phone: 617-353-2300
Web site: bu.edu/neidl

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