Makeshift robots invade Coffman

by Jennifer Niemela

With a bunch of cardboard, some two-liter plastic pop bottles and a matchbox car, Neil Nye built a robot.
Nye, an Institute of Technology student in Mechanical Engineering 1012, presented Wasteland, his amusement-parkesque robot Wednesday at a fair in Coffman Union. The robots, which the 190 students have been working on all quarter, were the classes’ final projects. Six jurors from the mechanical engineering department graded the projects.
“An engineer once told me engineering is a lot like cooking. A chef opens up the fridge and sees what he has and makes something out of that,” said Nye, who spent $17 on his robot. Students couldn’t spend more than $25 per project.
“I just took stuff from around the house and the garbage and built it,” he said.
Although Nye experienced technical difficulties with his robot, which looked like a cardboard roller coaster on which a matchbox car raced, he said the project was a valuable way of combining creativity with the technical skills engineers will need in the work force.
Mechanical engineering associate professor William Durfee, who teaches the class, said that is the idea behind the 2-year-old robot project. In the past, engineering classes focused on theory and equations, which he said didn’t adequately prepare engineering students for the work force.
This project is intended to teach students the important elements of engineering: designing a project, testing it, keeping it within a budget and displaying it.
“That’s what engineering is all about,” Durfee said, adding that in the past, “if you weren’t happy doing equations, you couldn’t be in engineering.”
What mechanical engineering professor Darrel Fohrid found most impressive about the projects was the originality of the robots. No two robots displayed even similar characteristics, which he said is a testament to the creativity of the students in the class.
However, some students found the class’s creativity element disconcerting in a field commonly considered logical and concrete. IT sophomore Ryan Johnson said at first the project intimidated him.
“When I first heard about it I was like, Oh my god, how am I going to do this?'” Johnson said. “But after they explained it in class the toughest part was sitting down and doing it.”
Nye’s project didn’t work correctly, so he didn’t receive as many points as he said he had hoped. But he added that the project was one of the most valuable things he’s done since entering college.
“This class has been the most satisfying I’ve taken so far,” he said. “It made me decide I really do want to become an engineer, and this project is a big part of that.”