EGR121 Assignment: Deliver Lab to Doorsteps

April 29, 2020 | By Elizabeth Witherspoon

Odyssey to deliver lab supplies around the world mirrors twisting path of Rube Goldberg-style contraptions the class built

Just because a hands-on undergraduate engineering class suddenly must go online, does not mean it must go hands-free. Nor does it have to become any less educational or fun when it comes to building a signature Rube Goldberg-style group project.

When Duke University converted to online education after spring break, mechanical engineering and materials science faculty Becky Simmons and Greg Twiss sprang into action to reinvent lab assignments to keep students designing and building with their own hands in their first-year Engineering Innovations class.

I think this assignment has proven that our students have the skills and confidence to innovate and collaborate anywhere.

Greg Twiss

With the help of Senior Lab Administrator Patrick McGuire and Research Development Engineer Eric Stach, and even Simmons’ two daughters, they ordered the supplies, assembled and shipped 82 kits to students and graduate teaching assistants across the U.S., plus one to Canada and another to India. The kits contained electronic components, switches, proximity and light sensors, a small motor and an electric multi-meter so the students could troubleshoot the designs. Students creatively added items they found around their homes, such as cardboard, toilet tissue tubes, even childhood toys and board game pieces, plus their engineering ingenuity.

The signature assignment in pre-coronavirus times asked groups of four students to build contraptions to pass a common object, such as a marble, through a series of ups, downs and convoluted passageways. They used gravity, pulleys, levers, catapults, doors and more, all triggered by the object setting off a series of electronic sensors, switches and small motors. Students earned extra points for complexity and creativity, not to mention bragging rights, as each team endeavored to outdo the next on presentation day.

The story of how they made this possible sounds itself like the twisting odyssey a ball might make through one of their Rube Goldberg-type contraptions.

Follow the odyssey by MEMS Professors Becky Simmons and Greg Twiss' class to deliver lab supplies around the world as it mirrors the twisting path of Rube Goldberg-style contraptions the class built.

Supplies lined up assembly-line style for packing into kits

Step 1: Ship supplies to home of Becky Simmons, MEMS associate professor of the practice, in Bahama, N.C.
Step 2: Enlist help of her two daughters to pack 82 kits from dining room assembly line.

boxes being packed and prepared to ship

Step 3: Meet Simmons at Eno State Park. Transfer packed kits to MEMS Lab Administrator Pat McGuire’s vehicle.
Step 4: Haul to campus, unload vehicle, affix shipping labels, reload vehicle.
Step 5: Ship off to students around the world.

According to McGuire, all but one of the kits arrived at their intended destination. The one sent to India made it to the country, but it was held up for delivery after arrival.

“This was all their idea,” McGuire said, referring to Simmons and Twiss. “So, I don’t want any credit for it. I just helped implement it.”

On presentation day, with the entire class watching via Zoom, the teams virtually passed their common objects to one another. Narrating while panning with webcams, students described the themes chosen by their groups, designs of the routes, engineering concepts involved and the intensity of necessary calculations. Each demonstrated her or his portion of the route built to move the marble, golf ball or whatever common object all members of the group were using. When one student’s object reached the end, the next student in the group began on his or her section that, had they all been in the same room, would have connected at the previous section’s endpoint.

Meanwhile, Simmons and Twiss praised the students and probed for details. They requested reruns and camera close-ups. In one case, that meant having a student reset a winding series of Dominoes and knock them down again.

It may have seemed like all fun and games moving marbles along a Thomas the Tank Engine wooden railroad track or putting it in or taking out of a homemade Monopoly game jail, but this was still serious engineering education after all.

“This entire experience was as an exercise in ‘structured improvisation,’” said Twiss. “Everything came together incredibly quickly, and the students took on this challenge with amazing enthusiasm, creativity and resourcefulness. We teach that ‘constraints’ have an important role in design, so I especially liked seeing the wide range of found objects from student homes that worked their way into the final designs. While we may have preferred a more standard in-person format this semester, I think this assignment has proven that our students have the skills and confidence to innovate and collaborate anywhere.”

“It was a really awesome way to stay connected and feel creative during such uncertain times," said Tanner Zachem (ME '23) of the Museum of DCs Group, who combined the themes from all the project assignments in the semester. "It was amazing to be a part of a class that attempted to make this semester as educational and fun as possible.”

“The skills we learned in EGR121 helped us to adapt to the unprecedented changes this semester and to continue to make the most of our experiences. The EGR121 instructors made the transition as seamless as possible,” added fellow group member Michael Wood (ME '23).