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Sophomore’s elegant, relentless machine a grand slam in 37th robo-fest


In a raucous battle of the ’bots that exuded energy squared, sophomore Stephanie Sidelko took top honors May 9 in MIT’s annual Design 2.007 contest when she and her machine outwitted, outlasted and outmaneuvered the tough competition.

Sidelko, only the third woman to win the contest since 1985, shrieked with delight in a huddle of supporters moments after she--with intense, deadly concentration--sent her trim, elegant machine dancing around sophomore David Sanchez’s sturdy contraption and blocked him to win the match.

“I just wanted a robot that moved,” a calmer, yet flushed Sidelko said modestly a few minutes later, although she noted her triumph came from getting her model done early so she could practice driving it “four hours a day” in the lab.

The win climaxed two days of mano-on-metal action for 2.0072 (a visual pun on 2.007 in 2007), the “final exam” for Design and Manufacturing I, taught by MIT faculty and staff under the direction of Alexander H. Slocum, professor of mechanical engineering and MacVicar Faculty Fellow. The annual contest, staged before a rapt audience of students, faculty, parents and robot lovers in the Johnson Athletic Center, is run by the ever-effusive Slocum, whose color commentary was matched in loudness by his Hawaiian shirt, oversized tie and yellow suspenders.

First held in 1970, the contest teaches students how to apply engineering concepts to a real-life hurdle. Early in the semester, students receive a kit; they then have to design a model and then a final working machine in time for the contest. Many of them have never built anything before.

This year, the challenge was to move and manipulate hockey pucks and street hockey balls on a specially designed table. Depositing balls in bins at one side of the table or sweeping pucks off the side would score points; plus if the machines could raise a clock-hand-like pointer to numbers 1 to 4, they could “square” the number of points scored. Students had only 45 seconds to score points and/or block an opponent from scoring. Thus they had to have both an “offensive and defensive strategy,” said Richard Fenner, director of undergraduate teaching labs, who praised the 2007 robots as “fantastic.” Indeed, “I’m always amazed at how complicated some of these machines are,” said Neil Pappalardo (S.B. 1964), life member of the MIT Corporation and founder of Meditech. The 2.007 machines are built in the Pappalardo Lab at MIT.

2.007 is a contest where everyone wins--even those whose machines fall over, get stuck or simply don’t function. Everyone learns something. “This is really great--to apply all the concepts you learn in other classes,” explained sophomore Michael Kerekes.

Students got into the spirit by naming their machines (“By Demons Be Driven,” for example), decorating them with stamps or stencils, or by dressing up. Sophomore Brian Demers wore a cape hoping to channel “superhero powers.” Alas, his machine got stuck on the edge of table. “You can never practice driving too much,” he acknowledged.

Slocum provided cheers--“Total zoomage!” “Now comes the puckage!” “Slash!”--and sound effects. Even when a machine toppled over, it was greeted with “That was very interesting.” The highest praise was: “Good industrial design, good mechanical design and Boston parking habits.”

Every student had a different strategy for winning. Sophomore Gavin Cotter was pleased with his “ball drop” mechanism, which he deployed before his opponent could block him. Some created swinging arms to move the pointer, which, when they were blocked in, were used to beat against opponents in frustration. “My robot is extremely simple,” said sophomore Paul Blascovich. “Sometimes simple works.”

Like a geeky Bill Belichick, sophomore Jeremy Franklin studied the webcast of the first rounds to deduce his opponents’ strategies. “The way to win is to score points in all categories,” Franklin said. Thus he designed a device that deployed off his main machine, Agony II, to raise the pointer; he managed to get 1,520 points in one round. “Jeremy, that was SWEET,” called out a fellow student as she walked by. The night’s high scorer was sophomore Dan Klenk with 2,016 points.

As the field narrowed, the crowd got louder, roaring when Sidelko’s machine was pushed by sophomore Nathaniel Sharpe’s machine (“They’re hugging,” Slocum announced) but still won, in the last rounds. Sharpe later took third place by besting sophomore Lawrence Maligaya’s “Guillotine,” while Sanchez placed second in the face of Sidelko’s juggernaut preparation.

The crowd cheered the action as if they were watching Dice-K pitch and groaned as if they were seeing David Ortiz strike out. “This is, indeed, MIT sports,” Pappalardo said.


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