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UCSB Students Engineer Cheese-Seeking Robo Rats

Lego Robo Rats Competition serves as the culmination of a six-week summer course

A nostalgic desire to play with Legos as young adults quickly turned into an all-out drive to out-engineer the craftiest of fellow UC Santa Barbara students.

After all, mechanical engineering seniors Robert Galarza and Tucker Roots did not spend six weeks of their summer developing an autonomous Lego robot to come away empty-handed in the class-wide battle.

On Thursday, their handiwork — along with that of 18 other students — was finally tested during the annual Lego Robo Rats Competition, which has served as the culminating contest to the college course in some form for the past 15 years.

Spectators packed into a small engineering classroom, where some resorted to standing on tabletops to get a better view of the action taking place on a long table in one corner of the room.

Galarza and Roots were up first, placing their “rat” robot made of Legos, DC motors, microcontrollers and sensors into the specifically designed course to compete for blocks of “cheese.”

The rules, essentially, outlined that robots would earn more points collecting the lightweight blocks that dangled from the top of the wooden course and fewer for those lower and closer to them.

Just seconds into the timed battle with another robot, however, the duo’s masterpiece fell into pieces.

Students react to their Lego rat robot picking up more "cheese" than their competitors, thereby scoring more points. (Gina Potthoff / Noozhawk photo)

Their competitors cheered joyously, while Galarza and Roots enjoyed the silence of slight defeat.

“There is no way this thing is going to move,” Roots said.

So the competition went, as students were gradually marked off the March Madness-like bracket written on a dry-erase board.

Instructor Casey Hare called the class “a kick,” and said most of the upper-level engineering students who participated had zero experience solving these types of electromechanical problems before taking the class.

Students were clearly interested in the contest’s results, with many yelling, laughing and smiling throughout.

A robot made by Patrick Therrien and Eddie Dorantes eventually won out.

“Get it! Get that cheese!” one participant shouted.

Some visitors to the classroom marveled at the high-energy competition and at the work the undergraduates were able to pull off in just six weeks.

Hare beamed with pride for his students, who were tapping into more than just mechanical-engineering skills.

“The competition is a way to get the students engaged and enthused,” Hare said. “The skills that they’re learning really do translate pretty directly to real things.”

On a nearby table, Galarza and Roots optimistically worked on their robot, which managed to earn 24 points before malfunctioning in the double-elimination tournament.

“It’s intense,” Roots said of the contest. “Everybody has different strategies. We want to learn. Mechanical engineering isn’t just mechanical anymore.”

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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