Design Contests


Since the 1960’s, sophomores in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering have been taking the hands-on Introduction to Design course“2.70” (which evolved into course 2.007 in 1995). The course teaches the fundamentals of mechanical design process and machine elements via hands-on engineering challenges. Lectures assume students have done the reading (this book!) so they can focus on potential solutions to the homework design problems. The homework helps guide the students the design and build a remote controlled machine for use in an end-of-term celebration (contest!).


A new contest is created each year by students who have just completed the class, and they use the design process learned in class. About 10% of the previous year’s students become current year’s Undergraduate Assistants (UAs), who help run the class, and this helps generate a feeling of student ownership. Student participation is a key element in the design of good contests, for what teachers may think is most excellent, students may find boring. It is critical to incite students’ passion and sense of ownership, while providing a rich environment for teaching fundamental principles. It is also important for students and teachers alike to have fun! 


To help illustrate the principles and ideas presented in this text, the 2002 MIT 2.007 design contest The MIT and the Pendulum will be used as a case study. In this type of design contest, the playing field has a variety of obstacles and scoring methods, and students drive their radio controlled machines in one-on-one contests to see who can score the most points. 


Put yourself into the mind of a student creating a machine for The MIT and the Pendulum, which is of course a geek twist on Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. The table is symmetrical with a scoring bin on each end and a rigid pendulum on each side in the middle of the table. Each pendulum is made from a square hollow plastic tube half-filled with blue street hockey balls. Its center of gravity is below its pivot point either with or without the balls. On the table, there are also street hockey pucks and balls. 


The pendulums start hanging straight down in the middle of the designated starting area for each contest machine (robot). As shown, your score is a function of the total mass of balls and pucks collected in the bins and the total angular distance traveled on the pendulum. Each term of the scoring equation has a small constant to increase the richness of potential winning strategies! 


The question is how to use the pendulum to your advantage, without your machine getting bashed by the swinging pendulum? There are a lot of balls in the pendulum and if it is swung just right, the balls will empty and bounce into the end scoring bin. 


What Would You Do!? 







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