Visit to UCSB Mechanical Engineering Department

On Monday of this week, sixteen Providence teachers and students took a trip out to UCSB, to visit the Mechanical Engineering department. Kirk Fields, Senior Development Engineer, met the group there and gave a tour of a few of the lab spaces.

The “clean room” was the first stop, and we noted that this is where Sarah Jane’s father works to assemble his company’s tiny lasers. We didn’t see him through the window, but there were many interesting microscopic images of gecko feet!

The materials testing lab tied in well to what we have recently studied with our older group, Advanced Engineering I. Our students have been testing various materials in compression, carefully measuring the loads required to produce deflection, and deducing the modulus of elasticity–in layman’s terms, a measure of how “springy” a substance is. This UCSB lab held dozens of industrial-grade machines to do similar experiments in compression, tension, fatigue, and so on.

Kirk (right) shows us the materials testing lab

Kirk was also able to show us a special research project, which involved a Perspex beam that “pushes back” when it a load is applied. Ordinarily, pushing on a beam would make it bend downwards, but this beam is equipped with sensors and motors that resist the action; this creates a beam with “infinite stiffness”, so to speak.

The beam of “infinite stiffness” reacts and pushes back against applied load

We walked through some other spaces (including the wind tunnel), ending up in a robotics lab that housed an in-house competition much like what we do in our own middle school and high school classes. The college students design robots using a variety of motors, sensors, and LEGO structures; the robots (“rats”) run around a walled-in elevated platform and collect “cheese”.

One of the “rats” from last year is on display in the central case

The visit, though short, was well worthwhile. Jake, our senior, recently applied to this college and this department, so he was glad to meet some people and get a firsthand look. Mr Hurt, also present, graduated from this campus, and happily reminisced about times past.

All in all, a positive experience, and we’re grateful to UCSB and Kirk Fields for allowing us the chance to come by!

Upcoming Event: MS Final Challenge!

In the Providence Middle School, fourteen 7th and 8th Graders are working busily on their capstone project for the semester: the Intro to Engineering Final Challenge! Every semester, the students in this elective are given a game-style challenge to complete, which involves designing, building, and programming a robot using LEGO Mindstorms EV3 sets.

This semester’s challenge is being played out on a large elevated plywood platform, 8 ft by 8 ft. Mr Meadth spent a happy few hours putting this together in the science lab.

Each team of two students must create a robot that can sweep the platform clear of various pieces of coloured “debris”; imagine a small robot whose task is to permanently keep a rooftop helipad clear of windblown trash. Two robots are running in each round simultaneously, and whoever pushes off the most debris wins.
Special note: the pieces of “debris” we are using are the game pieces designed by Eva last year for her high school Educational Design project! Naturally, they are printed on our mod-T printers, which are still running strong (and now only $299 on their website!).
There are significant challenges associated with this project. How do you keep the robot from falling off the edge of the platform? How do you actually have the robot find the scattered debris? Does it run a blind search pattern, or does it try to use sensors to actively search? What kind of locomotive means does it use? Tracks or wheels or something else? What if it bumps into another robot?

Let’s introduce our competitors this semester:

Isabela and Lily with their wheeled wonder–note the absence of rubber tires
on the front wheels to allow sideways slippage when turning

Christine and Sofi with their light and fast Pretzel Bot

James and Dylan with an imposing bulldozer–note the ultrasonic sensor on the
front to look for debris

Zach and Alan also went with a tracked design, and a large superstructure on
top for style points!

Ma.kaha and Cameron put their colour sensor way out in front to detect the edge
of the table–not falling off the table is critical to success!

Asher and Sam have an armoured design that looks just plain scary

Masato and Isaiah did some late redesign work to try to bring down their weight–
the robot with a lower weight gets the advantage of being placed first
The students will be presenting their completed designs to the rest of the class this Friday. The actual competition will take place in the Boys & Girls Club gymnasium on Monday and Tuesday at 1:00 during regular class time. Parents and friends are welcome, and it promises to be a lot of high energy fun!

Bridges, Cranes, Robots

After some humble beginnings to the semester (Newton’s Laws, basic structural mechanics, and gear ratios), we have had a string of exciting projects in our middle school engineering elective. Within the last few weeks, students have built railway bridges, designed high-torque crane systems, and are now writing code for simple three-wheeled robots.

Mr Meadth stands watch over the first train journey of the day–all is well!
The Bridge Challenge had students demonstrate their understanding of structural rigidity. The students were told that triangular structures are inherently rigid, and can’t change shape without breaking. They also identified the bridge as being primarily subject to bending loads, in which case it is best to build a bridge that is tall.
(For all you engineers out there, they learned to use a cross-section with a high second moment of area!)

Another bridge with an underslung truss system

Asher and Christine carefully plan out their triangular structures
From here, we looked at the interplay between torque and rotational speed. Anyone who has ridden a bike with gears or driven a manual shift car understands that different gear arrangements really do produce a change in outcome–you shift down gears to pedal up a steep hill. Our middle school students calculated various gear ratios, and also felt the hands-on difference, thanks to Jake’s Educational Design project from last year.

Zach and Isaiah feel the increase/decrease in torque for a 3:1 ratio
The lessons in gears were put to the test in the Crane Challenge, where students used the EV3 Medium Motor to raise as much weight as possible. The structure had to be strong enough to hold the weight (think triangles and rigidity again), and the gear ratios had to be reduced down one or two or even three times. Bottom line: a slower crane is a stronger crane!

Zach and Sam added a few “characters” to their
impressive submission, and were able to
raise 800 grams (almost 2 lb)

Lily and Isabela and “The Giraffe”; they raised
a total of 300 grams

Currently, students are working with a basic robot called the “Robot Educator”. This three-wheeled design is built from instructions, and is for the purpose of learning basic programming skills. The students are learning to tell the robot to move forward/backward, turn around, raise and lower its front trap, and make noises. They are also finding out about loops and conditions and switches, which help make programs more sophisticated. All of this experience will be used later in the semester as the teams design, build, and program their own robot.

Seven Robot Educators, lined up and ready for action!

More to come, so stay tuned!

Robots and Steel

We had two exciting experiences recently in the high school Academy. Firstly, in the 9th/10th Grade Foundations of Engineering group, we decided to take a break from the rigours of trigonometry to see some robotics in action. Scott Gary, a Providence parent, brought in his Battle Bot–The Piecemaker!

The Piecemaker has competed in several events about fifteen years ago, including “Robot Wars” over in London. The robot enjoyed mixed success, going against such fearsome competitors as Bunny Attack, Hannibal, and Techno Trousers.

Scott pulls off the cover to show the internal workings of The Piecemaker;
Jakob and Samy have eyes on the flamethrower!

Alec and Colby watch as Scott describes the
internal wiring, which was actually less complex
than the robots we will be building next month

The Piecemaker is controlled by a regular remote-controlled aircraft setup, which sends signals to the powerful wheelchair motors at the wheels, and also to the metal cutting disc on the front. Scott showed us a worn-out disc from previous competitions; the fuzzy debris from other robots was still stuck on the blade!

Scott takes The Piecemaker outside to fully demonstrate its destructive capacities!

The students were allowed to operate the robot… be assured that the rotary cutting
disc was disconnected first!

Scott attempted to light the flamethrower, but the wind just wouldn’t cooperate…
too bad!
Low-res proof of former glory: The Piecemaker (middle right) goes head-to-head
with Bunny Attack (left)

This week, the members of the 11th/12th Grade group, Advanced Engineering, took a walking field trip to the nearby Santa Barbara Forge & Iron over on Gutierrez Street. The business is owned and operated by Dan and Andy Patterson, who are newly related by marriage to our own Mr Hurt. Sadly, two of our group of six were out sick, and they were missed!

Dan met us, and began by showing a few of the projects that he currently has on the boil, and how he uses Trimble SketchUp to plan his designs after taking the initial site measurements. Tys and Sarah Jane spent much time last year learning SketchUp, and Kylie and Caleb recently had their first exposure to the CAD program. It was gratifying to see the exact same software in action at a thriving Santa Barbara business just blocks away from the school.

Dan opened the tour by showing some SketchUp projects

Dan was also able to show us around the shop, which is filled wall to wall with fascinating industrial machinery. Workers busily hammered away at iron and steel, drawing it out into custom-made features destined for various local businesses and residences.

Tys, Sarah Jane, Kylie, and Caleb look on as Dan demonstrates the various
co-ordinate axes of the drill press/lathe

This particular piece is destined for a local museum, at which we hope our students
will soon have opportunities to volunteer… more on this later!

Sometimes you just gotta hammer away on
a good old-fashioned anvil

And sometimes you use a jet of energized plasma on a computer-controlled machine;
the students gratefully finished their tour with this huge piece of equipment

Many thanks to Dan and Andy and everyone at Santa Barbara Forge & Iron for their warm reception of our students. Their creative passion, combined with hands-on skills and applied mathematics, are an inspiring example for us. Thanks again also to Scott for bringing in The Piecemaker.

Stay tuned for more projects and field trips and guest speakers! The year is just getting started.

Engineering at Providence: The First Few Weeks

As we step into the 9th day of classes, I’d like to give an update on all things engineering at Providence. With eighteen high schoolers in the Academy, fourteen middle schoolers in the elective, and three different classes between them, there’s a lot going on!

In the high school, we talked about how all technology is an amplifier; that is, it takes the output of the user or the designer and magnifies it–for good or for bad. Technology in and of itself cannot create, and it is not inherently good or evil. The responsibility is on the user or the designer to exercise wisdom and virtue, so that their technology is amplifying for good. Lofty thoughts!

One historical amplification of human effort and creativity occurred with the widespread implementation of the waterwheel in medieval Europe. The waterwheel could be connected via a crank and connecting rod (or a cam) to convert continuous circular motion into reciprocating linear motion. Did I lose you? Take a mental break and watch Sarah Jane and Aaron demonstrate…

Imagine using running water to power a system that can bounce something back and forth over and over and over again. You can crush gravel, pound pulp to make paper, stitch cloth, saw wood… the possibilities are practically endless!

The process can also be reversed, as shown by Tys and Caleb below. This system is what’s happening inside your car’s engine, with pistons moving up and down (linear) to make a central drive spin (circular). It’s no exaggeration to say that modern industry depends on this simple setup.

David and Todd also came up with an impressive cam system, complete with a tiny weighted hammer on one end.

David and Todd show off their tiny industrial device

Samy and Jakob designed a sideways system that imitated the kind of action that would be used for sawing a piece of wood. The long white piece moves in and out horizontally as the wheel spins.

Samy and Jakob with their sawing machine

Did I mention that all of this was done by the students themselves, without any help from me beyond describing what the goal was?

Ben and Alena with another crank-connecting rod machine

Students have also been getting into some CAD work (computer-aided design). Kylie is brand new to the world of CAD, but after a couple of coaching sessions by Sarah Jane, she is turning out models with the best of them. She also learned the hard lesson that 3D printing is not a foolproof process…

But you can always try again.

And sometimes you just end up with a piece of modern art.
Over in the middle school elective, we began with our traditional opening challenge–record of 26 books still held by Josh and Pedro from a couple of years ago.
  • At least 4 inches / 10 cm high
  • Three sheets of paper
  • 1 metre of tape
  • Freestanding (not attached to the table)
  • As many books as possible!
Cameron and James look on as the pile grows
One central cylinder–strong but not stable
Mr Meadth also showed the principle of inertia–that objects want to keep doing exactly what they are currently doing. A cardboard tablecloth is not the very best thing for this, but the students seemed to get the idea, with some help from Christine.

Note the heavier cast iron teacup staying perfectly in place. The salt and pepper almost did, but as Dylan pointed out, the higher centre of gravity made it more difficult despite their inertia wanting to stay in place.
That’s a taste for now of all that we are doing. Coming up this month: playgrounds, battle bots, earthquake-proofing, trigonometry, and more!