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Blasting off as engineers

Spectators and judges watch as first-year engineering honors students compete in the 22nd annual Fundamentals of Engineering for Honors Robot Competition.Spectators and judges watch as first-year engineering honors students compete in the 22nd annual Fundamentals of Engineering for Honors Robot Competition.

Dozens of robots—and their anxious student creators—took over Ohio State’s Recreation and Physical Activity Center one Saturday last semester as 71 teams of first-year engineering honors students competed in the annual battle of the ’bots.

The 22nd annual Fundamentals of Engineering for Honors Robot Competition is the culmination of a semester-long project that challenges students to design and build an autonomous robot in less than nine weeks. The hope is that by the end, not only will students have a fully operational robot, but they’ll also know if engineering is right for them.

“By the end of their freshman year we want them to know what engineers do, what the processes of engineering are, what skills are involved, so that they can then make an educated decision about whether that’s what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” explained Kathy Harper, senior lecturer of engineering education. “And most of them decide that, yes, it is.”

Cheers from enthusiastic family, friends and students filled the gym as four teams competed simultaneously on a 12-by-12-foot course that simulates a rocket launch complex. The robots had just two minutes to perform certain tasks, including toggling several switches to initialize communications systems and delivering supplies to the launch pad. Play-by-play action was announced by Professor Rick Freuler, while adjacent to the main competition area, teams huddled in groups, tweaking code, discussing strategy and making emergency repairs.

Head-to-head competition winner, Team A9, managed to get their robot up and running weeks ahead of other teams, thanks to student Ted Sender’s seven years of previous robotics experience. Even so, the final competition was nerve-wracking, said teammates TJ Erb, an undecided engineering major, and Tanner Nelson, a civil engineering major.

“The two weeks leading up to the competition, we were seeing teams catch up to us and even be faster than us, so we were pretty nervous,” Erb said.

“We almost didn’t make it to the finals,” added Sender, a mechanical engineering major. “In our second elimination round we missed one switch. Then another team from our same class missed the same switch and a team just behind us on the same course also missed another switch. But because we finished first we got to move on.”

There’s more than just pride on the line. Scholarships are awarded to the head-to-head competition winners, as well as for the best engineered, most innovative and most consistent robots. Ranging from $75 to $250, the scholarships are sponsored by ArcelorMittal, Honda, Procter & Gamble, Shell and other companies that value experiential programs like this.

First-year engineering students fine-tune their autonomous robot during class.First-year engineering students Marysa Addis (left) and Victoria Wegman fine-tune their robot during class.

For many students, just making it to the competition seemed impossible at first.

“When I started, I was sort of terrified of the project,” said team A 4 Apples member Sakura Kawakami, a computer science and engineering major.

Her reaction is one Harper knows well after 20 years of working with students in the Fundamental of Engineering for Honors program. “Students have a very bimodal reaction. Some of them look so excited. Then you have a whole bunch who look like a deer caught in the headlights, and they’re really thinking ‘oh my gosh, what did I get myself into?’”

“That’s the point where it becomes very important to tell them, ‘This is a class. If you think you know exactly how to solve this problem that we just presented you with, you’re wrong. And if you think that you’re not going to be able to do it, you’re wrong, because you’re going to have a team,’” she said.

Students build their toaster-sized robots out of acrylic, plywood, sheet metal, PVC, Erector set components and other materials. For Kawakami and many others, it’s also their first time working with the 3-D printers, laser cutters, drill presses and other tools needed for construction.

The robots operate using small DC motors and batteries. Students write their own autonomous robot control software, which is loaded onto a small microcontroller.

Just like in the real-world, teams must work within a budget. Each team is loaned a computer controller and toolkit, but all other supplies must be purchased.

“There’s some bonus consideration if they’re under budget and a penalty if they go over budget,” said FEH Director Rick Freuler. “So they’ve got time, physical, material and financial constraints.”

“They think it’s all about the robot itself. But really it’s all about the engineering design process and all the things that you have to do with that, scheduling, budgeting, planning, prototyping, testing, documenting, evaluating,” he said.

A 4 Apples team members (from left) Marysa Addis, Victoria Wegman, Corey Cox and Sakura Kawakami with the robot they designed and built.The whole challenge was a little overwhelming, but also a lot of fun, explained Team A 4 Apples member Victoria Wegman, an engineering physics major.

“I learned a lot of technical skills. Especially with actual coding and building things,” she said. “I had no idea how to put together circuits and now we’ve wired an entire robot. I also learned a lot about teamwork, cooperation and time management.”

Wegman also learned that she definitely wants to be an engineer. That’s just what the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Gateway Coalition hoped for when it piloted a different way of teaching engineering students in the 1990s to improve retention nationwide.

The overall FEH program has grown tremendously since it evolved from that effort, from 71 students in 1997-98 to 420 students in 2015-16. Initially, the final robot competition was small enough to fit in the lobby of Hitchcock Hall, Freuler said. In recent years, more than 270 competitors and up to 1,000 spectators have filled the RPAC gym.

Today, students in the FEH program also have two other design-build projects to choose from. More than seven out of ten of them, however, choose to build robots. 

“People come here specifically to be in FEH and to build a robot,” said Harper. “We’ve heard that from many, many people.”

A 4 Apples team member Corey Cox, a welding engineering major, can understand why.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of time, but it’s definitely rewarding to see how much you learn and how far you come,” he said.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,