McLurkin, assistant professor of computer science at Rice University, called
for students with at least two “X-chromosomes” to grab socket wrenches and go
to work taking apart his Honda CRF 450 X motorcycle, the one with the 449cc
liquid-cooled single-cylinder four-stroke engine.
the female students answering the call in Introduction to Engineering
Systems—“Engi 128,” as it’s known—was Sofia Avendaño, a freshman who plans to
major in mechanical engineering. With the others she removed the racing bike’s
seat and side panels.
not shy. I know something about tools. That part’s easy. With the homework the
hard part for me is programming. I’ve never programmed before but I’m learning.
Sometimes it takes four hours a night,” said Avendaño, who would eventually
like to work on the Mars program for NASA.
freshmen are enrolled this semester in Engi 128, a class started by McLurkin in
2010, one year after he joined the Rice faculty. He thinks of the class as an
engineering sampler, exposing students to a variety of disciplines with
emphasis on electrical and mechanical engineering, and computer science. Most students
who take the class, he says, eventually declare as engineering majors.
of them don’t know what a screwdriver is. Others are perfectly comfortable
around machines. Some are very good at programming. You can’t make too many
assumptions about them, except that they’re very bright and they want to
learn,” said McLurkin, director of the Multi-Robot Systems Lab at Rice.
week’s first session was devoted to traditional engineering topics—thermodynamics,
energy storage, the internal combustion engine. McLurkin passed around the
pistons and valves salvaged from one of his earlier racing bikes, a Honda
XR250R—one that overheated and seized during a race in New Mexico.
started with bicycles and BMXs when I was a kid, more than 30 years ago, and
I’ve been racing ever since. I’m on a first-name basis with my orthopedic
surgeon. I’m on my sixth break,” he said.
moving on to McLurkin’s bike, his lecture touched on the space shuttle, the
Toyota Prius and diesel locomotives. After dismantling the motorcycle, students
reassembled it so McLurkin could take it outside and ride it around the parking
days later, in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, the students were
required to demonstrate the robots they had programmed by running an obstacle
course. Most students ran back and forth between the tracks and their laptops,
tinkering with code. Among the first to complete the course was Duncan Young,
who expects to major in mechanical engineering and appeared to know more about
engine design than most other students (he was the only one who could locate
class is excellent. It’s entertaining but you also get exposed to all kinds of
information, lots of things I didn’t know anything about. I mean, I know my way
around an engine, but Prof. McLurkin gives us a sort of tutorial around general
engineering,” Young said.
the last to successfully complete the robot challenge was Alex Sokolyk, who
wants to major in computer science and eventually become a game designer. When
his robot veered off the course onto an unplanned tangent, Soklyk resorted to
elaborate displays of body language.
“Minor little tweaks in your programs can make
major changes in the direction of your robot,” he said, adding, “The class is
always fun. All design challenges you can think of as games to be won.”