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."  

The joy of creation always involved a certain level of pain. Craig Meyer drew a smiley face on his robot in the beginning, but before he was done, he'd thrown blocks at his robot. After he crossed out the smiley face in exasperation, the robot became known as "No More Mr. Nice Guy." Other would-be engineers threw their robots against the wall and started over. To receive an A in the course, it was necessary only to try, but most people wanted to succeed and to build a winner. In the last three weeks of the class, the lab was occupied at all hours, the students falling asleep over their LEGOs. Cliff was not an all-night kind of guy, but seeing some competition forming, he committed himself to the lab until morning, working out a few kinks.

As for the creators of Fatty McGee, the team's third member, engineering major J.C. Kneale, wanted to run a few last tests. Cornett and Winkler told him, "nah," and the night before the contest, they all went out drinking.

The next day, the robots were placed across the table from each other, and Dr. Young turned on the light that activated their sensors, and the games began. Laura Schwent lay in the back of the auditorium snapping a photo of the Urinator. (Why the Urinator? "It's yellow," a team member said.) Craig Meyer sat with No More Mr. Nice Guy, feeling nervous. It wasn't as though he had to stand in front of everyone and pick up blocks, so he said he was nervous only for his robot. He began kissing it and wishing it luck.

Team Grundle sat quietly waiting. Cliff held the robot on his lap, and when it was their turn, Grundle went out and collected every block on the board. "A perfect score for Grundle!" Dr. Young announced, and at least he was excited.

Fatty lost the first match when the block bumped against the wall coming over and fell. But then, in the second match, the claw hauled the block home, and Kneale raised his hands for the touchdown sign, and the crowd exploded -- "Yes!"

All of creation rose and fell. Kamikaze, the collaboration of an anthropology major, a music major and an ancient Mediterranean cultures major, lumbered forward with the weight of a thousand years, collided with the foe and slowly burned out its engine. Mr. Green, which was blue, brought back all the blocks -- and then reversed and returned them. And facing Je Ne Sais Quoi, No More Mr. Nice Guy became utterly baffled and heaved the blocks off the table.

Oh, the agony of defeat. Against Ol' Dirty Bastard, Fatty McGee just sat there, unmoving. "What's Fatty doing?" someone shouted. And Winkler shouted back, "He's getting fatter."

The tournament was double elimination; Fatty was out. Team Fatty McGee was disappointed, but, as Cornett explained, "It's not like this was the pinnacle of our college career or anything." They had proved that Fatty could do the job, if someone would do the work. And they went back to their room and that night went drinking again.

Grundle, meanwhile, surged through the competition. The robot had been invincible, but Cliff knew the limits of his machine. There was nothing out there that could score more than Grundle, but Cliff's worst fear was those machines that did not try -- the imprecise creations that simply banged into you, as though this were a crash-up derby. Cliff had not built Grundle to take a blow. Knowing this, he set his robot down finally against Oscar. Oscar, whose creators had pulled three all nighters in the previous week to prepare for this. Oscar, which looked even to creator Jimmy Wang "like a pile of garbage."

Off they went like little animals. Grundle moved surely around the board and began its methodic retrieval; Oscar raced down the other side, grabbed one block and turned around. Grundle was collecting its seventh block when the collision came. Grundle tried to get home, but Oscar had been equipped for moments like this with a 75:1 gear ratio. Grundle went nowhere.

Oscar and Grundle went head-to-head again in the finals. Grundle was known far and wide for its consistency, but, as though unhinged, Grundle simply turned to the wall and stalled. The crowd roared its approval. "Justice prevails!" someone shouted. Marisa and Micael turned to Cliff and said, "What happened?" Cliff spared them the technical explanation. "We lost," he said.  

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