Battle of the 'Bots

The point of ELEC 201, Dr. John Bennett said, is to prove that engineering, and engineers, aren't dull. Explaining the joys of creation, Dr. Bennett quoted Sartre ("to do is to be"); he quoted John Stuart Mill ("to be is to do"), and he quoted Sinatra ("dobedobedo").

All semester long, his students had lived with their joy, and now they had come to Rice's McMurtry Auditorium with their creations: Gargantobot, the Notorious Bot, the Big Blue Baller and all the rest. Throughout the auditorium, they tinkered and preened over their robots, like parents before a talent show. The audience spilled into the aisles, waiting, shouting. It was Marisa Levy's final exam, and her parents arrived with a video camera. "I think people like to watch robots destroy each other," said Marisa. "The more violent it is, I think the more fun it is to watch."

The seats sloped down and overlooked a table eight feet long and six feet wide, which was the arena of combat. The board was marked with black and white lines and was bisected by a six-inch wall. On either side of the wall were seven foam blocks. The ultimate game was called "Capture the Robo-Flag," and the mission was to convey more blocks over the wall than your foe.

While some robots had been designed for this more perfectly than others, that they functioned at all, said co-professor James Young, was "a feat of engineering equivalent to landing on Mars" -- considering, at least, who the engineers were and what they had to work with.

ELEC 201 is open to everyone. Students know it as the "LEGO robots" class, and it's the only engineering design course at Rice without prerequisites. From a room filled with $60,000 worth of LEGOs, a bucketful was given to each group, along with a small pile of mechanical fragments. With this and ignorance, the students sat down.

At first, they entertained wild ideas: robots that would jump over the wall or roll over as a giant wheel. How they clung to these notions depended on the forces that governed each team. The anthropology majors waged war with the freshman engineers; religious studies took on computer science. Dr. Bennett said the liberal arts students were "enriching to the engineering process." They were like the new Christian who draws a picture of God; they didn't know what was impossible.

Marisa Levy was a sociology major. One of her teammates, Micael Gonzalez, was a political science major, and the other was Cliff Thomas, who had known all his life he would be an engineer. Cliff would tell Marisa about the 20-page paper he was writing on aluminum, and she would tell him about the sociology of gender. Marisa said Cliff would blush when she spoke of hermaphrodites. Cliff said his teammates added "character" to the project, which is what liberal arts majors are good at, he said.

Cliff decided they would do the practical thing and build a vehicle that would travel around the wall. The robot became an orderly and efficient retriever of blocks, an extension of his personality. If Cliff walked into the lab and found that his liberal arts comrades had created something preposterous, something completely counter to the standard laws of how things work, he simply reassembled it in proper fashion. "I like to have things go my way," he said, "and they all understood."

It was they who finally suggested a name for the robot. Cliff didn't know what a Grundle was, and it's possible they said Grendel, he admitted. But it didn't really matter what they called his machine. The name was only a word, and he just wrote it down and turned it in.

Team Grundle followed the time line for every stage of creation and received the coveted LEGO dragon for being the first robot capable of picking up a block. When Grundle began collecting all the blocks and doing this again and again, so easily, the awe in which Grundle was held changed to envy, and people began to boo when Grundle was demonstrated.

Other robots stood out not for efficiency but for unorthodoxy. The engineering majors disparaged these as "gimmick robots." You could always tell who created them, said one engineering major. They were "the elaborate people."

"We wanted to make the biggest, fattest robot possible because one of our roommates we always make fun of for lying on the couch and being lazy," said Shawn Winkler, a policy studies major.

Thus was born the fearsome Fatty McGee. They piled on LEGO after LEGO, and realizing they could never supply the power to move this pile around the wall, they conceived of the claw that would reach over for the primary block. The claw was powered by rubber bands, and one advantage of this design was that it meant less work --not having to build complicated engines and navigation systems. A disadvantage was that if Fatty McGee missed the block, it meant certain doom. Team member Paul Cornett, a history major, explained that he and his roommates were all kind of lazy and very willing to take chances. Dr. Bennett pronounced Fatty McGee "devilishly clever." "If it works," he said, "it's hard to beat."

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