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It's not every day you see a koala, red panda and otter zoom off in makeshift airplanes from Pasadena's famed Colorado Boulevard. But, on January 1, that's exactly what millions of global spectators witnessed, as the award-winning "Dreams Take Flight" float rolled along the 129th annual Rose Parade Tournament of Roses route.

The Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade is recognized around the world for its extravagant, well-executed floral float entries. This year, 39 floats participated. Yet one float in this spectacular line-up year after year is very much unlike the others: It's designed, developed, built and managed solely by California State University students.

The Cal Poly Universities float this year marked the team's 70th entry continues to be the only student-made float entry in the Rose Parade, and one of six just self-built floats in this year's event. The float was lauded for the most outstanding innovation and awarded the Past Presidents Trophy.

"By being awarded the Past Presidents Trophy, we have proven that we continue to grow and set the standards for future float builders," says Ali Harake, a mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, who serves as the campus' float president. 

"I feel a great sense of pride being a part of such a strongly motivated team that always wants to improve and innovate."

'We Are Students First'

Nearly 100 Cal Poly students from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a variety of backgrounds and majors — worked together to design and build the massive float, decorated with more than 42,000 stems, over the past 13 months.

Each year, the participating students work within and outside their academic specialties. It's not uncommon to see Cal Poly mechanical engineering students out on the campus fields collecting strawflowers, or agriculture students in the lab being taught how to weld.

"We are students first," explains Jerica Hurtado, MBA student at Cal Poly Pomona, the campus' float president.

Students prioritize courses, exams, projects, internships, jobs and other responsibilities as they work on the year-plus-long float project.  In fact, work on the 2019 float has already begun.

It's a complex project, but the young builders have an advantage over the competition, explains Harake.

"Being on a college campus, we have access to a lot of equipment that most people don't ever see outside of a learning environment. Because of this, our efficiency has grown over the years and our quality has improved significantly from year to year," states Harake. "We are always pushing the boundaries."

This year, that meant introducing never-before-used mechanics and a 1,500-pound koala in a bi-plane, the largest and most complicated element of the float.

Alumni and community members provide support, too, by donating money, food and time to help decorate the float; some alumni also serve as advisors.

The Cal Poly Universities float has earned many recognitions for firsts over the years, including the first to use hydraulics for animation in 1968; first to use computer-controlled animation in 1978; first to use fiber optics in 1982; and first to achieve California Grown certification for using at least 85 percent of fresh flowers from in-state growers on their float.

In 2018, a new, 5,700-square-foot $3.7 million Rose Float Fab and Complex will break ground on the Cal Poly Pomona campus, introducing an abundance of construction, design and storage space for future float teams and their creations.