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Christopher Heaver next to his "Wheel of Fortune" creation

C'mon, big money!
Christopher Heaver shows off his "Wheel of Fortune" creation at the student robot show Dec. 11 at the McNamara Alumni Center.

Engineering students display novel creations

By Rick Moore

Dec. 12, 2006

As campus events go, this one seemed like a can't-miss proposition.

Some 210 mechanical engineering students had spent the last six weeks on an intriguing class project: They each took a kit of parts--including two motors, a programming device, transistors, wire and LED lights--and with instructions to not spend more than $30 in additional parts and materials, built their own robots or gadgets.

According to the press release promoting the event, their inventions might do something useful, like crush an aluminum can or scrape a windshield, or they could exist "solely to amuse and delight." Either way, the release suggested, these machines would "do something interesting."

Heck, I'm sometimes amused by Richard Simmons and I find that guests on Sunday morning political shows eventually say or "do something interesting," so I figured my threshold for entertainment would be sufficiently low--especially factoring in the intelligence and creativity of U engineering students.

They didn't disappoint.

In fact, hundreds of friends, faculty, jurors, guests from industry and spectators jammed the McNamara Alumni Center on the Twin Cities campus on Dec. 11 to be amused and delighted by the student robots.

There were machines that made ice water and bubbles. There was one that painstakingly raised a gumball up a lift and onto a long, spiral ramp, where it rolled down to its final destination. And there were a number of machines in which Goldy Gopher picked on a Big Ten opponent (usually Wisconsin), including two in which he mechanically shot a puck into a net. 'Tis the season for hockey games, after all, and it's never out of season to pick on Bucky.

About the only less-than-delightful part of the afternoon was the realization that there was no way to take in all of the creations...not to mention [hear the students'] preferred places to scrounge for cheap accessories, like thrift stores and the Axman surplus store.

Ross Makulec created "The Waddling Penguin" in an attempt "to do something fun for this project," and he chose Legos for the penguin's beak because "it's a building material I'm comfortable with [from] many hours in my youth." The beak mechanically and rhythmically snapped together after the penguin waddled a ways, and from deep within the creature a chorus of "Jingle Bells" could be heard.

In the marginally utilitarian category, there was Jonathan Sullivan's "Mixbot" creation--"a friction-driven rotary mixer." A motor spun the Mixbot's center wheel--which was covered with 120-grit sandpaper--at about one revolution per second, and caster wheels fixed on the sandpaper triggered "mixing vessels" (aka, martini shakers) on each end to spin around at about 7.4 revolutions per second.

It was a product that might make a weary bartender slightly envious, even if the resulting beverage might be, er... too well shaken. "Yeah, 30 seconds is probably overkill, but it can always be reprogrammed," says Sullivan. (All the student machines had to be designed to operate from between 30 to 60 seconds.)

Jonathan Sullivan with his invention
Jonathan Sullivan stands behind the gadget he designed to shake mixing vessels.

Sullivan already has a degree from the U in materials science and engineering, and decided to come back to school with the blessing of his employer. And he thought the final project of mechanical engineering professor William Durfee's class was "pretty fun."

"I got to use my head and I like to work with my hands," he says. "I found that enjoyable."

It being basketball as well as hockey season, Joseph Udvari was more than happy to show off his creation, the "Super Slam Dunker." The device has an arm that takes a nerf basketball and slams it into a hoop. Seconds later the device is supposed to score again with a second ball.

"I thought it would be fun to make and possible to make," Udvari says with a smile. "And it turned out [to be] close to possible."

Unfortunately, the Super Slam Dunker was beset by a couple of glitches, including a temperamental switch that controlled the release of the second basketball.

While Udvari was content to tend to his switch glitch on his own, there was help on site for students experiencing problems requiring urgent care. The Ski-U-Mah Room of the McNamara Alumni Center was designated as the "Robot Hospital," and a half hour into the event it appeared as if two patients were being treated. The sign outside the door read: "We accept all sick robots. No health plan required."

Next door, the A.I. Johnson Room served as the robot annex, with perhaps 40 or 50 of the creations that didn't fit into the building's main atrium, and a large crowd milling around trying to see them all.

The room was home to a machine that was causing a bit of a buzz--Christopher Heaver's "Wheel of Fortune." Before setting it into motion, Heaver explained what would happen: the wheel would spin and land on a dollar amount, and the letter "N" would pop up next to the contestant who presumably spun the wheel. A facsimile of Vanna White (a doll's head on a clothespin body) would then glide down a track, and as she did, two "N"s would appear in the now fully revealed word, "Engineer." And at that point, the studio audience--in this case, about three dozen hand-painted clothespins--"spins and applauds and does whatever audiences do," Heaver says.

For extra effect, when Heaver pushed the button and set his machine into motion, he imitated an actual Wheel of Fortune contestant: "C'mon, big money! Let's go!" Sure enough, the wheel spun, Vanna did her thing and, in Heaver's case, the puzzle was solved.

(And what was our favorite low-budget letter turner wearing? Let's just say only Vanna could pull off a number put together with little more than a bit of red felt, a pipe cleaner and a budding designer's eye for fashion.)

About the only less-than-delightful part of the afternoon was the realization that there was no way to take in all of the creations and hear all of the stories of the challenges the students overcame, not to mention their preferred places to scrounge for cheap accessories, like thrift stores and the Axman surplus store.

It turns out that Lin Jiao bought the doll head for his guillotine device--named "The 'tine" for short--at the same place Heaver purchased his Vanna head. Without getting into too much detail on Jiao's macabre creation, the end effect is that doll meets an untimely (but very quick) ending via a power chopper from WalMart ($7.99). While it represents "the cruelty of humanity," he says, a person could also substitute a carrot under the cleaver.

What inspired him to create a guillotine? "Everyone else was doing something 'useful,'" he says. "I decided to do something pointless, but cool looking.... And that would inspire little kids to become mechanical engineers."