Bee teams fight for A’s in engineering competition

Bee teams fight for A’s in engineering competition

Special to the Rice News

As the professor stepped into the arena to unlock a traffic jam of “robees” (robotic bees), freshman Michael Fleming launched into his play-by-play: “And the hand of God reaches in yet again.”

Gridlock resolved, with Velcro-covered robees once again collecting pollen (plastic balls), Fleming continued: “Some of the teams had problems getting back to the hive. Ours had problems leaving in the first place.”

So it was Monday morning with the “Honey Bee Adventure,” properly known as Design Challenge 7 in the freshman Introduction to Engineering Systems, or ENGI 128, with head beekeeper James McLurkin, assistant professor of computer science at Rice.

“Some of these students have come a long way in just a few months,” said McLurkin, whose research focuses on swarm robots engineered to work collectively on tasks, like colonies of bees and other social insects do. “Some of them didn’t know anything about programming. Now they’re programming robots for competition.”

The competition, accompanied by much cheering and expressive body language, took place on a course set up on the first floor of Duncan Hall. Twenty-eight freshmen are enrolled in the class, started by McLurkin in 2010. They broke into four teams, each completing four tasks corresponding to the seasons of the year.

“I designed the game for Professor McLurkin,” said Allison Garza, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering who was keeping score on her laptop. “I did a lot of research into how bees behave. I like the math, but most of all I like the design element.”

McLurkin conceived of the class as an engineering buffet that allows freshmen to sample a variety of disciplines with emphasis on electrical and mechanical engineering and computer science. Most who take the class eventually declare engineering as their major.

“We didn’t lose any (students),” McLurkin said. “I conceive of the class as a lot of fun, naturally, but I want them to get a taste of what engineering can really be. They’ve learned a lot.”

– Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering.

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