Robot Show highlights student creativity, childhood dreams

by Heidi Burtson

The final class assignment for the fall semester Introduction to Engineering course seemed simple on the surface—create a robot that “does something interesting,” but there was a catch.

After receiving a kit of parts, students could spend no more than $30 of their own money on the project. The robots must be programmed to perform for 30 to 60 seconds independent of human assistance once started, and the robot would also be assessed by judges, including professional engineers.

Observing robot conceptWith creativity and hard work, the students rose to the challenge and showed off more than 200 of their creations to the public on campus December 8 at the annual robot show. The show is the largest non-competitive gathering of robots in the world.

Hundreds of guests navigated the rows of display tables, and children craned their necks to watch the robots in action. The buzz of conversation, whirr of robots, and occasional airborne ball gone off course contributed to the event’s aura of excitement and playfulness.

The broad criteria of the assignment resulted in a variety of robots, most of which reveled in the whimsy of the project and reflected forgotten childhood dreams. Ballerinas pirouetted, Snow White sang, and race cars competed around a track. Some robots were even built using children’s toys. Ken putted golf balls with varying precision, a Fisher Price xylophone played itself, and Kid K’Nex held many constructions together.

Amy Schellinger’s Snow White robot flipped through photo stills from the Disney movie and sang the familiar “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Schellinger explained, “I like Disney a lot. I figured I might as well do something I like.”

Guy observing robot concept Many students used the project to combine their other interests with engineering in exciting, creative ways. Amanda Oellien, a sophomore engineering student minoring in music, wired a Fisher Price xylophone to play “Mary had a Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns.” She said, “I wanted to do something the audience would like.” To stay under budget, Oellien resorted to the salvage yard, where she pried the power locks from a car for use in her robot. She reflected, “I learned that you have to fail a lot before something works, but once it does work, it’s a great feeling.”

Crystal Sparkman’s robot named “Would you like S’more?” featured a marshmallow roasting itself over a fire (lightbulb), and sat among a display of suggestive graham crackers and Hershey bars. The robot was a favorite among children. Sparkman, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, math, and physics, remarked that she came up with idea for the project once the Minnesota winter hit, and she found herself daydreaming about warmer weather.

Reminiscing about summer inspired other projects as well. Danielle Lindblom created “The Flying Trapeze.” The small-scale model of the carnival ride simulated patrons boarding a swing-like ride before lifting off into the air. Zalikha Khalid’s “Eye on Minnesota” also included a small-scale, Ferris-wheel-type ride, but while performing for spectators, one of the baskets fell off the robot. An onlooker remarked, “I wouldn’t want to be in that one!”

Girl posing by robot concept Corey Meyer, whose robot filled a cup with ice, commented that the constraints of the project taught him to be resourceful. Meyer scoured U-Pull-R-Parts, an auto salvage yard, and walked away with a battery, tank, wiring, and more for less than $10. “It also taught me that there are lots of different ways to solve the same problem,” he said.

Professor Will Durfee said this is the first time many of his engineering students have used their problem-solving skills to design and build something that works on its own. Designing these robots on a small budget also helps the learning process.

“It means the students had to be creative, prowling the back aisles of Target or looking in dumpsters," Durfee said. "There are serious objectives to these limits, because in the real world, these future engineers will have to deal with cost constraints when they design things.”

December 8, 2008