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Freshmen Join 'Robotic Rat Race' to Test Design, Team Skills

November 6, 2013

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Heat Of Battle: Freshman electrical engineering students Sara Harvey-Browne (left) and Taylor King (right) help direct their robot to deliver ping pong balls to the correct target area during a test day for the Robot Rat Race engineering practice challenge. (Photos by Dale Long)

There were many critical elements to success for freshmen Rose-Hulman electrical and computer engineering students working together to master the skills of creating LEGO-based robotics to win this fall’s engineering practice course—part of the institute’s popular robotics program.

The Robot Rat Race challenge had robots pass through a complex maze to pick up cheese balls (ping pong balls) from four cheese holes for delivery into any of three randomly assigned cheese vaults scattered throughout the playing field. The robots worked autonomously for the first 30 seconds before being manually controlled by team members for another 2½ minutes.

Adding more intrigue to the competition: A roll of a die assigned point values for the cheese balls and the vaults before the start of each period. This meant that teams had to be flexible and change their strategy at a moment’s notice.

Watch the challenge via our livestream.

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Learning Curve: Members of the Murphy’s Outlaws team test their LEGO-based robot for this fall’s Robot Rat Race challenge, the final design project in the introductory engineering practice course for electrical and computer engineering students.

“We came up with a very difficult challenge,” says professor Carlotta Berry, PhD, who provided helpful advice throughout the design, creation, and testing process. “There are so many elements that have to work together to make a successful run. Fortunately, every team is a winner by getting to the starting line.”

The goal was developing skills necessary to form a strong product development team.

That was accomplished, according to several freshman participants.

“We learned very quickly that it takes a lot to put together a successful project,” states Sara Harvey-Browne, a freshman electrical engineering student. “Creating the robot is just one thing. Working well together as a team is another.”

Communication skills were a crucial element as team members gave verbal commands to the controller using a laptop computer to send the robot on the correct path through the maze. One wrong move could result in a ping pong ball being dropped or the robot crashing into a side rail–preventing a team from scoring the most possible points in each three-minute period.

“There was a lot of practice needed to master the objectives in this project,” says Kyle McClintick, a freshman computer engineering student. ‘It wasn’t as easy as we originally thought.”

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Delivering The Goods: One of the Lego-based robots successfully carries two ping pong balls to the landing area to score points in the fall competition.

Taylor King, a freshman electrical engineering major, adds, “Our team went through a lot of prototype designs and met after class for several hours to work things out. But, at the end, you just keep your fingers crossed that everything works on the night of the competition.”

Adding fun to the challenge and keeping with the cheesy theme were such clever maze street names as Cheddar Boulevard, Colby Drive, and Monterey Jack Place. The overall contest winning team was crowned “The Big Cheese,” while the team with the most creative, innovative solution received the Colby Creator Award.

“A little bit of competition adds something to the educational process,” says Berry, who has been quite active in judging regional and national robotics competitions. “Throughout this process we hope students develop a passion for engineering design. This passion will put them on the right track throughout the next four years.”

Berry hopes students are inspired to earn a minor in robotics, a multidisciplinary program whose graduates are in demand by corporations.