MIT model explains how the brain can learn novel tasks while still remembering what it has already learned.
Design 2.007, MIT's annual festival of machine design, manufacturing and adrenalin, culminated in a clash between two major crowd-pleasers: a grappler-trailer combo designed and driven by David Arguelles, and a truck-and-winch machine designed and driven by Kurtis McKenney.
The contest, now in its 29th year, is an elimination round tournament that provides a thrilling and challenging end to Design and Manufacturing I, taught by Professor Alexander H. Slocum. The course begins in February as each student is presented with a green box stuffed with items ranging from windshield wiper motors to springs, string and Duplo blocks.
This year's version of the annual contest, known as MechEverest because of the gravity-defying climb required of each machine, took place in Johnson Athletic Center on May 5 and 6.
At the end of the second three-hour session, Mr. Arguelles leapt with joy as his grappler-trailer machine triumphed over its worthy opponent in the final 45 seconds of play.
"I feel wonderful. I just can't believe it. I honestly believed that something would go wrong with my grappling hook or something else. Everything went like clockwork, though," said Mr. Arguelles.
"Using the trailer was a pretty big risk. I had only used it a couple of times before, and only once successfully. The tables had been cleaned for the contest, so the machines behaved a bit differently than in practice. I was afraid I wouldn't have the power to tow the pucks up on the clean table," he said.
Mr. Arguelles was "happiest with how reliable it was. The treads didn't fall off, the grapple didn't tangle, the hook fired accurately. These were all issues I had been struggling with during practice. Also, the fact that my little trailer ended up working was great. There's no way I could have won without it."
Professor Slocum himself leapt up frequently during MechEverest. Sporting his now-traditional master of ceremonies garb -- Panama hat, Dilbert tie, measuring-tape suspenders and a bunch of belt-based communications appliances -- he mixed heckling and hosannas as the students' machines struggled up the daunting MechEverest tables.
"There's our friend gravity again!" he shouted as one machine slid helplessly downhill. When two smashed together, it was, "Kiss! Kiss! I love to see such affection between machines!" And when the action slowed, he seized the instructional moment to say, "The elements of successful design are, robustness, repeatability and the ability to go wubba-wubba-wubba -- just like in faculty meetings!"
MechEverest was designed and named by Roger Cortesi, a sophomore in architecture who served as a teaching assistant for 2.007. He was inspired by the Museum of Science's Omni Theatre showing of Everest, he said.
To compete, each machine had to climb the mountain and dump hockey pucks in X-shaped holes. Each competitor could begin with 10 hockey pucks loaded into his or her machine. The object was to drop the pucks into the holes as high as possible on the table; the higher up the mountain, the more each dropped puck was worth. Machines had to score at least one point before attacking an opponent.
The top four finishers -- Mr. Arguelles, Mr. McKenney, Chris K. Harper and Justin Raade (all sophomores in mechanical engineering) and juniors Rony Kubat and David Shear of mechanical engineering -- will go to the International Design Competition in Japan. That contest works like MIT's Design 2.007, except the teams are comprised of young engineers who have never worked together and probably share no common language.
"That's what's great about it. The language of engineering is drawing and physics," said Professor Slocum.
Professor Slocum, who departed for Paris with his wife to attend the International Machine Tool Show ("we promise to bring back lotsof new bearing technology!"), ended this year's 2.007 contest on a positive note.
"The neat thing is, you hear this world is going to hell. But the world is in good hands with these young people advancing," he said.
Maureen Lynch, administrative assistant in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Production, produced the event. Professor Steven Dubowsky, Assistant Professors Samir Nayfeh and Kevin Otto, lecturer Hamid Hashemi and Adjunct Professor Igor Paul, all of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and William Finch, a post-doctoral associate at the Center for Innovative Product Development, also participated in teaching 2.007.
The principal sponsor for the contest was General Motors. Other corporate sponsors included 3M, Accuwinder Engineering Co., Alcoa,Bauer USA, Bosch Automotive Motors, the Children's Museum, Ford Motor Co., Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., General Electric, Office Depot, Polaroid, Rubbermaid, Pratt & Whitney, Teradyne and VWR Scientific.
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 30).