Love hearing about the kinds of projects you and your brother worked on growing up, Jon. The point you make is well-founded and applicable to how we as a society approach everything kid-related today, from robotics competitions to sports. Instead of letting kids go at it on the fly and with their own creativity, we tend to burden them with the structure, organizational demands, and tools better suited for a professional endeavor. I'd love to see a competition take a page from what you suggest.
I remember making projects when I was a kid all the time - taking a model airplane gas engine with propeller, building a car with wooden wheels, and have it go in circles even jump over ramps, model rockets, and a stick built 5 foot french war kite!! among other things. Cool...
6V Motor, Battery, and Two Servos? That's easy, build a radio controled model boat. One servo for a speed control with neutral forward and reverse, wired to the motor and battery. The other servo operates the rudder. Viola!!
While the implementation of these competitions might be open for improvement (such as removing the "specialty devices", I do see an advantage to the "required product" idea. Except for a few inventors, that's the way industry works. The engineer has some pre-determined goal. Depending on the organization, it is sometimes specific and sometimes general, but it is very rare that you just build "something", with no background on a problem to solve. Needless to say, when I was in college, I was not a fan of those professors who were told that they need the class to do a group project, so they simply assigned "do a project having to do with [name of class here].
The "Chopped" idea is a good one. This would be a great competition for kids as well as seasoned engineers. It would be like an accelerated version of "Junkyard Wars". Fresh out college, I worked at a few low budget places that were one step away from Chapeter 11. These places were like real life versions of "Junkyard Wars". It really put your engineering skills to the test in making old machinery produce new parts at high quality. There was no ordering new machinery, so all you had was your knowledge and a deadline. In these jobs, I learned how to make something out of nothing, and they made me a better engineer.
WITH THE 2 motors and a 2 channel remote controller, either add them to a vehicle, one to drive and one to steer, or use them to control the aim of a TV camera hidden some place.
WHY FIGHTING ROBOTS? Because it is something to get the attention of non-engineering type folks, and it may be fun.
I've been involved locally with a program called "BEST", Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology. In this program, each group gets a common kit of items, and has to build a "robot", but the goal is not to destroy the "other guys" robot, but to compete against them to perform a common goal. I've had a great time being one of the professional "mentors" for a couple of local high-school teams. Competition day is a blast! The website for this program is:
This sounds a lot like a design class a fraternity buddy had in college, back around 1969. Every team got a couple motors, two servos and a 2-channel radio link (fancy stuff back then!) with the goal to build an R/C ATV. The completed vehicles would compete for best time around a small course that included sand, water, a ramp and I think some grass, at the small swimmin' hole (pond) at the teacher's rural house. My buddy (mechanical engineer-to-be) built the body, drive system and gearbox, and I (aspiring EE) helped him find appropriate batteries (military-surplus NiCads) and design the simplest-possible control system. It was lots of fun, and our design blew away the other entrants on almost all counts. Its main fault was that it was too fast (we eschewed speed control for simplicity); it hit a small rock and flipped upside down into the water, which got into the simple-but-not-waterproof motor control. After manually righting it (incurring our only penalty), it proceded to finish the course in record time, despite having lost the ability to turn left! 40 years later it still brings back fond memories!
A middle school team from Rochester, Mich., has again nabbed the grand prize in the annual international Future City Competition, which drew students from 37 regions of the United States, as well as from England and China.
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