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Students revved up by ENGI 128

2012-11-01

James 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.

Among 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.

“I’m 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.

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Twenty-eight 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.

“Some 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.

The 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.

“I 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.

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Before 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 lot.

Two 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 the radiator).

“The 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.

Among 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.”