Battling for an A: Mechanical engineering students build dueling robots

A student in ME 340 makes final adjustments to her team's robot. Credit: Tyler Henderson / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On Dec. 11 during the ME 340: Mechanical Engineering Design Methodology final exam, there were no blue books or pencils in sight. The quiet and concentration typical of an intensive exam was nowhere to be found.

Instead, more than 130 students cheered boisterously in the classroom, rooting for each other’s victory in a battling robot competition. This reflected the vision Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, set forth for the final exam — a sumo-style robotic face-off, where teams spent the semester meticulously building a machine capable of pushing another team’s out of a small ring.

ME 340, a required course for those majoring in mechanical engineering, equips students with the fundamental tools to produce an effective design solution in a realistic environment with conflicting customer needs and technical capabilities. Menold’s students accomplished this through the semester-long development of their autonomous robot. 

Menold piloted the competition during fall 2019. 

“I felt it was important to build foundational skills in mechatronics and computing, while teaching creative problem solving through design,” she said. 

ME 340 BattleBot Competition Credit: Penn State College of Engineering

The semester began with students purchasing a robotic starter kit in lieu of a textbook and learning how to effectively code and design engineering systems in parallel. Shortly thereafter, their prototypes entered the ring for the first time.

“When I announced on day one [of the course] that we would hold the first competition in three weeks, the entire class pretty much thought I was insane,” Menold said. “But they had their robots up and running by the first competition. I think it showed them that they could really push themselves to build some truly incredible devices.”

By semester’s end, with the enhanced knowledge of the design process earned during the course, the students were more than eager to battle for the top honor, evidenced by the raw enthusiasm during the final exam. 

“I loved seeing the students get totally immersed in the project,” Menold said. “Nobody wants to sit through a lecture listening to a professor drone on, so adding an element of competition made the course so much more enjoyable.”

With 34 teams competing, one robot, created by undergraduates Kevin Litzinger, Matthew Mychalowych, Sri Aadarsh Nalluri and Ziheng Zhu, emerged victorious. But, as far as Menold is concerned, all the students were worthy of accolades. 

“I could not be prouder of this group; they really are a great group of future engineers,” she said.


Last Updated January 10, 2020