Robot Show gives IT students chance to show all they know

by Paul Sand

What do an old turntable, the side of an Easy Mac box and a handful of colored beads have in common? Usually nothing, but Wednesday afternoon they were integral parts of Amy Daml’s entry in the University’s fifth annual Robot Show.

Daml’s robot imitated a small-scale assembly line. A moving arm pushed a tiny paint container onto a circulating turntable, which moved it under a funnel. Either a red or green bead then fell into the container, which Daml promptly moved off to the side.

Sophomore Daml, along with more than 200 mechanical engineering students, displayed their hand-built machines at the Gateway alumni center as part of their introduction to engineering class.

Professor William Durfee, who teaches the class, said the students received a kit of parts – including a small microcomputer – to assist in building their robots. Aside from the kit, the students could use no more than $30 of their own materials, he said. This led to a variety of ways of finding suitable materials.

“I heard a rumor about a dumpster behind the med school that a student visited every day,” Durfee said, jokingly.

While Durfee said he believes this is the world’s only noncompetitive robot show, each student’s machine was judged by a group of 90 jurors. Their decisions – based on functionality and degree of construction and interest – dictated the students’ grade, he said. The project, Durfee said, comprises 30 percent of the students’ final grade in the course.

Durfee said the main criterion for each student was simple: to build a robot that does something interesting. The machines were also required to have at least one moving part, be computer-controlled and no larger than half of a banquet table, he said. The department, Durfee said, likes to keep the requirements loose to give students design freedom.

Dan Schlichting, a freshman in the Institute of Technology, used this freedom when designing his “towering gravity balls” project. Schlichting’s machine, which stands nearly five feet tall, is built entirely out of multicolored, Erector set-like pieces.

The machine employs a motor-powered pulley which pushes a ball to the top. The ball then rolls across the machine, hitting an arm which directs it onto one of two paths. As the ball descends toward the bottom, it passes through a series of loop-de-loops before resetting and starting the process again.

Schlichting’s machine worked properly when demonstrated but projects that did not were repaired in the robot triage center. The robot hospital was set up in a conference room aside of the students’ projects and was stocked with spare parts for last-minute repairs and diagrams for last-minute questions.

Gabriel Routh, a mechanical engineering graduate student and teaching assistant working in the hospital, said supplies such as hot glue, duct tape and spare wires were available to students frantically trying to make their robot function before the judging began.

While the show offered a fun way for students to display what they have learned, it also gave them a feel for what a career in engineering would be like, Durfee said.

He said dealing with budget and time constraints and presenting a final product to the public teaches these young engineers valuable lessons about the trials of real-life engineering.

“(Hopefully) after they are finished with the project, they’ll know if they want to be in engineering,” Durfee said.

Paul Sand welcomes comments at [email protected]