Students Learn Engineering Principles While Playing with Legos

PULLMAN, Wash. — When Washington State University students gather April 21 for a Lego-robotics competition, they might look like they’re playing with toys. But the competition gives them valuable engineering experience.

Sponsored by the WSU chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the event is set for 1 p.m. in Sloan Hall, Room 242.

Some 60 students participating in the competition are freshmen enrolled in Engineering 120, an introduction to engineering. Throughout the course, the students have learned about various engineering disciplines, says course instructor Carl Wells. In March, the students were divided into teams of four, given Lego Mind Storm kits and asked to construct a robot. The robots must collect racquetballs in an 8-by-8-foot arena and drop them in a hole. Four robots will compete at a time. The team whose robot deposits the most balls in the hole wins. Prizes will be awarded for the winners as well as for the robot with the best overall design.

The students’ work involves sophisticated engineering and programming skills, says Erin Hope, ASME activities coordinator and a senior in mechanical engineering.

“They’re put together like regular Legos, but regular Legos can’t be programmed to search out and find things,” he said.

Wells adds that the competition gives students experience that is valuable for future engineers. Engineering work requires creative thinking, working in teams, visualizing a concept and designing it to perform a task. Among the challenges in the competition are teaching the robot how to pick up the ball, releasing it at the right point and taking the other three robots into consideration.

“This gives the students experience in trying to build a mechanical system that they can program to perform a specific task,” he said.