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Smart product design course has many fans

Hundreds of wildly cheering fans are standing on tables, crowding the aisles, guzzling sodas, leaning forward in their seats. Their attention is riveted on a pentagon-shaped court where two robots are racing back and forth between Ping-Pong ball dispensers and chevron-shaped goals.

The name of the game is "Gimme Five." It is an elimination tournament between pairs of 18-inch tall robots with names like Junk-Yard Dogs, Bot'n'Stein, Robbie the Robot, and 218 Blues. The robots are supposed to collect ping-pong balls one at a time from a dispenser and drop them in the goals. The first robot to get all five balls in a goal wins. ME218robots.GIF
Ed Carryer, center, who teaches ME 218, shows off robot "D is for Done" while, from left, graduate student John Franklin poses with "Bugeyes" and Mark Olson displays "The Sultry Beast."

A few, like Robbie the Robot, resplendent in day-glo green acrylic ball catcher and satin-finished aluminum bumper, perform almost flawlessly. But most of the entries have some kind of problem. One robot zips into the dispenser and then backs away so quickly that the ball drops to the floor. Another robot displays an altruistic streak, collecting one of its opponent's balls and putting it in a goal for it. Another entry, which seems to think it is playing ice hockey, slams its opponent up against one of the goals and won't let it move until the two are separated by their handlers. A black stealth model called "The Force" zipped around the court so quickly that it was a danger to its fellows and got to put on a solo performance.

The competition, which took place on March 11, is the final winter quarter project in an unusual mechanical engineering graduate sequence ­ Smart Product Design, ME 218 ­ that has developed a major-league reputation in the world of mechanical engineering.

"It is typically the most popular graduate course in mechanical engineering," said department chair Ronald K. Hanson, who attended the competition.

As the name "Smart Product Design" implies, the subject of the four-quarter course is how to design computer-controlled mechanical devices. The emphasis is on teaching the students how to use electrical components, including computers, sensors, solenoids and motor controllers in their designs, according to J. Edward Carryer, director of the Smart Product Design Laboratory and consulting associate professor who has been involved with the course since 1987.

"More and more, mechanical engineers are finding themselves working with teams of electrical engineers and computer scientists. So we are trying to give our students the expertise that they need to work productively in that environment," Carryer said.

The course was started by mechanical engineering Professor Larry Leifer in 1977. Carryer took it as a student and enjoyed it so much that he became a teaching assistant in 1987. He worked with ME 218 as a teaching fellow until he got his doctorate in 1992, and he has been teaching the course ever since.

One of ME 218's boosters is Tom Kenny, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He requires all of his graduate students to take the course because of the skills it teaches them. The course has a nationwide reputation, he said. "A number of our best graduate students come to Stanford just to take this course."

That was true for graduate student Emily Clark. She was a member of ME 218's first all-woman team ­ named "XX no Y" ­ that constructed a robot dressed up as a baby penguin. Before coming to Stanford, Clark worked for several years with the Delco division of General Motors. "There were several smart product grads in my group and they told me I had to go to Stanford and take the smart products course," she said.

ME 218 is "absolutely fundamental," agreed JoeBen Bevirt, a master's student who is also taking the course this year. "When you are interviewing for a job people ask if you've taken 218. It's like a rite of passage; 218 alumni really stick together."

Another factor that has put the course on the mechanical engineering map is the number of students who have gone on to form successful companies. According to Carryer, about a dozen new companies have been started by 218 alumni. Two recent graduates founded Gyration, which manufacturers a 3-D computer pointing device. Students who took the course the first year it was offered started Nomadic Technologies, which makes small mobile robots. Immersion, which makes joysticks for virtual reality video games, and Omnicell, which produces automated vending machines for hospital supplies, also got their starts in 218.

The course's special mystique seems to stem from several sources.

Part comes from the specific skills that the students learn. "The technology is not state-of-the-art, but the course was 20 years ahead of its time. Industry people know that mechanical engineers need to know this stuff. But other engineering schools are just catching on," said Craig Lawrence, a doctoral student who took the course three years ago and has served as a coach ever since. According to Clark, "It's also the electricity thing. It's invisible. You can't see it work. We go into ME because we like to see what we build work. This course takes all the hocus-pocus out of electrical engineering."

Another key element is 218's project basis. Students spend hundreds of hours on their projects. "It's addictive," Clark explained. "You want to make the stupid thing work and you can't quit until it does. One of my teammates came down with a fever. We kept sending her home to rest. But she couldn't stay away." Most of the students, herself included, really amaze themselves with how much they can accomplish, Clark added.

Civil engineering graduate student Erik Straser, who took the course two years ago, put it this way: "ME 218 draws things out of you, instead of trying to pour things into you the way most courses do."

The final element in the course's success is Carryer himself. "Ed lays things out in a way that brings out the best in students," Straser said. The first quarter project is designed to have a high success rate to give the students confidence. The second project is a team competition, which gets them motivated. The third project requires groups of teams to collaborate, Straser explained.

Carryer devotes a tremendous amount of time to the class, according to his students. He is always available to answer their questions, often spending until midnight or 1 o'clock in the lab. "Ed is a fantastic professor and motivator," said Lawrence. "Five minutes with Ed and every thing is crystal clear," added Clark.

There is one minor downside to the course's popularity. The students admit that they put so much effort into ME 218 that they tend to neglect their other courses. As a result, some mechanical engineering professors discourage students from taking their classes in the same quarter.

Nevertheless, Lawrence and Clark both give the course what are arguably the highest possible accolades. Lawrence said that it gave him "a real passion for engineering" and Clark admitted that it got her really excited about school for the first time: "Other than being an astronaut, I can't think of anything more exciting."


For more information on the web:
ME 218 home page
Prof. Ed Carryer home page
Smart Product Design Laboratory home page

By David F. Salisbury