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11/22/2000 08:00:00

Caltech's annual machine competition to be held Nov. 30

PASADENA—Caltech engineering students will put their freshly built robotic rovers through their paces when they compete for top honors at the 16th annual ME72 Engineering Design Contest at 2 p.m. Thursday, November 30, in Beckman Auditorium.

The celebrated contest lets undergraduate students match wits and design acumen to see whose machine is best at performing a contrived task. The media are invited to attend and cover the event, which should last about 90 minutes.

At the beginning of the 2000 fall term, the 18 students registering for Mechanical Engineering 72 were given a design task, a "bag of junk," and a limited number of weeks to build a machine they judged capable of performing the assigned feat during a public contest. The students, paired up in nine teams, will by November 30 have finished designing, prototyping, fabricating, assembling, testing, debugging, and tuning their machines, preparing to see whose device is tops in the final contest.

In this year's contest the machines will compete in a large box rather than on a horizontal game table as in previous years, said Erik Antonsson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Caltech, longtime instructor of ME72, and originator of the design contest.

"The task this year is to attach small cubes and cylinders to the magnetic back wall of a 16-foot by 5-foot by 4-foot Plexiglass box," Antonsson said. "Also, we've gone wireless this year, so students will be liberated from their electrical umbilical cords." The annual contest has become a highlight of the Caltech academic year for students and faculty alike. Though the contest itself is entertaining for onlookers, Antonsson said the real motivation is to teach students how to design and build engineered devices that can hold up—and perhaps even perform superlatively—in the real world.

"Engineering is primarily the process of creating new things to solve problems," Antonsson said. "This course and contest is one attempt to provide students with a real-world opportunity to learn about the design of new things and the solution of open-ended, ill-defined problems."

The event is sponsored by Schlumberger, Honeywell/AlliedSignal, Northrop Grumman Corp., Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Biosense Webster, Boeing Satellite Communications, idealab!, the San Diego Foundation, Dr. David and Mrs. Barbara Groce, GE Energy and Environmental Research Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, Novak Electronics, TORO, and Valeo, Inc.

MEDIA ACCESS: The contest is open to the news media and Caltech community. Media will have special seating in the front two rows on the right side of the auditorium, and in the center of the front row. To ensure that the hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have a clear view of the contest, we ask that the press not stand on or in front of the stage.

Written by Jill Perry