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January 22, 2004

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Francis Crick
Francis Crick '04 (above) displays a homemade ATV to the class as the screen behind him shows the remote's design with 3-D modeling software. (Staff photos Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

In class, off-road

Motivated engineering students take to the computer, the workshop - and the road

In the class "Computer Aided Machine Design," students don't just talk the talk, they walk the walk - and race the race. This introductory course in the design and construction of mechanical and electromechanical devices peaks with students designing and constructing a small fleet of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) that compete with each other on a homemade obstacle course.

For two demanding weeks, students "reverse engineer" a common cordless screwdriver, learning in this undoing process the function of the screwdriver's basic parts. In the ensuing several weeks, they work in teams of three or four to metamorphose the screwdrivers (with the help of a few additional parts and $40 worth of gears) into remote-control ATVs. Each ATV turns out to be a simple yet rugged, quick and powerful vehicle that can conquer a grueling obstacle course.

To help build these tough little racers, students learn to use 3-D modeling software. With the software, the students generate "code," i.e., instructions and measurements, that is fed into a lathe at the machine shop to cut out custom pieces. The software, in effect, helps ensure that the builders have pieces that are accurately sized and shaped.

As the finished vehicles take to the track, they compete in a range of capabilities, most notably power (towing a heavy trailer up a ramp) and maneuverability (driving through a "slalom" course made of beakers and funnels). After these feats and a few more - traversing over circuit-board "rubble," going through a tunnel, and other deeds of derring-do - the vehicles are judged, winners are announced, and students go on to other classes and other, somewhat less exciting, homework.

Chris Johnson Team Dollar's vehicle
Chris Johnson '07 (left) maneuvers his vehicle down the homestretch. Team Dollar's vehicle (right), sporting an identifying dollar bill on its antenna, maneuvers over a rough stretch of terrain built with obsolete computer parts.
Professor Robert Howe
Professor Robert Howe applauds an entry after its performance.

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