San Diego, CA, February 24, 2005 -- Hundreds of students sit in the bleachers of the Main Gymnasium on the UCSD campus, cheering on their classmates and friends on the gym floor. But this is no ordinary sporting competition. Instead, teams cluster around three contest tables, each about the size of a ping-pong table, where remote-controlled robots are competing to grab balls out of thin air. With video crews and reporters on hand to cover it, the scene is straight out of TV's Battlebots program (watch video at left).
Welcome to the MAE3 Robot Design Contest, which doubles as the final exam for a course that Nathan Delson teaches twice a year for the Jacobs School of Engineering's mechanical and aerospace engineering undergraduates.
"Engineers want to build things and use technology to make the world better, and to do that, they need to combine both theory and practice," says Delson, Director of UCSD's Mechanical Engineering Design Center. "What we try to do is show them they can build things by using a little bit of physics and a little bit of math and a lot of creativity. Design brings all those things together."
The ten-week course includes the basics of building machines and using shop facilities. During the first third of the course, the undergraduates work on individual projects. Then for the rest of the quarter, they break into teams to build machines - usually some type of robot -- that compete in a class-wide contest. Adds Delson: "Even the students who don't win feel like they are winners if they succeeded in building a machine as they conceived it."
| Student members of the Preuss School's four|
teams, with organizer Nate Delson.
Prior to each competition, teams must submit 30-second "commercials" for their robots, using Powerpoint or video to "market" their inventions. With titles like "Robotic Watermelon Drop" and "Robot Parking Space Scramble," each course's contest takes its inspiration from a different aspect of campus life. In fall 2004, the inspiration came from Physical Plant and Services at UCSD, notably the gigantic air vents on the north side of campus.
Delson dubbed the contest, "Floating on Air," and equipped each of the three contest tables with airflow vents to keep some of the balls up in the air. Each team got points by capturing plastic balls and putting them in bins. The orange balls were worth the most points, because they were floating in the air stream and harder to grab. White balls were placed in the middle, on the surface of the contest table, and were worth less.
| Preuss student prepares |
robot for semi-final match.
According to Delson, the competition can become intense. "We had some very creative solutions with extending arms that blocked off other teams' access," he says. "We had a number of very imaginative machines. One of them went out and had an extending arm and rim with a net that would grab the floating balls from the air. It worked successfully, but they did not win the contest."
"The students have a tremendous sense of pride over getting their machines to work," says Delson. "Students have told me it changes the way they think of engineering because of how they bring their ideas and apply them."
The Jacobs School and Calit2 are now trying to use the robot design contest to get even younger students excited about engineering. There is already a robotics club at UCSD's Preuss School, and its high-school students field an entry each spring in the nationwide FIRST Robotics Design competition. In fall 2004, Delson and the Preuss team's advisor, Rob Manieri, approached the UCSD division of Calit2 to sponsor Preuss students' participation in the MAE3 design contest. Dan Rupert, also a Preuss teacher, guided the students in the competition. "We proposed this idea to them and they gave us the funding so we could buy the materials and get Preuss set up with their own contest," says Delson. "The funding also allowed us to hire some UCSD students to work as the high schoolers' mentors."
| Robots in final match; winner|
is on the right.
During the quarter those UCSD mentors worked twice a week with teams of Preuss School students. Then at the end of the quarter, four teams were allowed to pit their robots against the best that the college students could muster. The students recall staying at school until 8 each evening in the week before the event. In the round-robin elimination rounds, one of the Preuss School teams made it all the way to the semi-finals. "They were ecstatic, especially because they only got their robot working a couple of days before the event," recalls Delson.
| Delson addresses the MAE3|
and Preuss teams before
the contest in UCSD's
The Preuss School may now incorporate the competition into its pre-engineering curriculum, and Delson hopes the high schoolers will give the UCSD teams a run for their money again next fall, with continued support from Calit2.