MIT advises CRLS team in national robot contest


Nine MIT students are lending their engineering skills to a group from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in a national "robo-gladiator" contest similar to the Institute's 2.70 competition.

On April 19-20, more than 90 teams of high school students paired with engineers will face off at Disneyworld's Epcot Center in US First, a competition founded six years ago by inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen of Manchester, NH, to promote high-schoolers' interest in science and technology. The CRLS team is one of the few whose advisors are college students rather than professional engineers, according to Marc Mander, a junior in physics and one of the students working with CRLS.

During the contest, radio-controlled robots weighing up to 120 pounds will shoot balls at a target; the winner is the one that gets the most balls into a bin in two minutes. One student from each team can toss balls to the robots, which can also scatter other teams' balls and perform other maneuvers provided for by their designers. "You have to think about the engineering cost associated with different strategies," Mr. Mander noted.

"I don't consider myself a world-class designer, but I'm very motivated and determined when it comes to design and encouraging younger students, which is something I love to do," said Nathaniel Riley, a sophomore in mechanical engineering and co-organizer of the MIT effort. He and other MIT students worked hard over spring break to finish building the robot, dubbed "The Black Knight." During that week, the nine CRLS students were each given the opportunity to test-drive the machine to determine who would be the driver at the national competition.

The contest has much in common with the famous MIT course 2.70 (Introduction to Design) taught by Woodie Flowers, Papallardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Professor Flowers emcees the US First contest and designs the match rules and goals each year with Mr. Kamen. Funding for the CRLS team came from Palmer & Dodge, MIT's legal counsel, as well as the President's Office.

"We're delighted to join with MIT in sponsoring what we know is a winning team," said Jeffrey Swope, partner at Palmer & Dodge and general counsel to MIT. "We've had a chance to meet Nathaniel Riley and some of the other students who've been working on the project, and we've been thoroughly impressed with their enthusiasm, dedication, diligence and sense of community."

The robots were designed and built over a six-week period from a standard kit of parts provided by US First. The CRLS students broke into small groups that concentrated on different aspects of the problem. They had no training in mechanical design and construction, but that wasn't necessary. "Everyone has the imagination to conceptualize a robot," Mr. Mander said. "The kids were involved in all aspects of the project; they were calling a lot of the design shots. It was important that the ideas came from them so they had a sense of ownership." Mr. Mander is president of the MIT chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, which is involved in several community-service and outreach projects.

The other MIT students who are involved are sophomores Lawrence Durant, Garth Mitchell and Linda Nguyen, junior Ian Pancham and senior Robert Hicks, all of mechanical engineering; Akwasi Apori, a sophomore in aeronautics and astronautics; and Alim Needham, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science. They are advised by Ernesto Blanco, adjunct professor of mechanical engineering.

"What the country needs is not just better-trained engineers, but more creative engineers," Professor Blanco said. "Things like 2.70 and US First further this goal by bringing together all the disciplines of engineering and giving students the confidence to do it themselves."

Also lending a hand were Professor Kim Vandiver, Edgerton Center director; technical instructor Anthony Caloggero and administrative assistant Cindy Dernay of the Edgerton Center; technical instructor Chris Dewart of the Department of Architecture, who helped build a five-foot mockup of the scoring bin; and Dr. Edward Seldin of the Medical Department, who helped with part of the design.

Mr. Mander hopes to participate in next year's contest with students from a Boston high school


Topics: Artificial intelligence, Volunteering, outreach, public service

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