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Science in Mind

In this final exam, students’ robots put to the test

Machines must conquer slopes

Beckett Colson watched as his robot, Odd Ball One, got stuck at the top of the ski slope during the MIT robotic skiing competition.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE — This isn’t your typical final exam. For one thing, the professor is wearing a furry white Yeti outfit. There’s dance music playing. Referees in black and white striped shirts tromp around wearing snowshoes and ski boots, even though it’s a nice spring evening. And the test isn’t a lengthy paper or a series of math problems.

Instead, students sidle up to a dauntingly steep ski slope covered in white Astro Turf, remote-control units in their hands. Here, robots with nicknames like “Bugzee” and “Upper Body Strength” will do battle.

The one question everyone is asked: “Are you autonomous?”

Meaning: Will your robot for the first 30 seconds of its competitive run, drive itself up the ski slope without manual control, earning double the points?


This is 2.007, a mechanical engineering class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that focuses on using the knowledge and concepts students learn in books to build a robot. Each year, it culminates in an intense final competition at MIT’s ice rink, where robots compete ski to ski and wheel to wheel. The stakes are high — the bleachers are full of friends and awards are given: the MacGyver award, the Rube Goldberg award.

If it’s possible for a sophomore college class to be storied, 2.007 is. It was started 40 years ago, by MIT professor emeritus Woodie Flowers. In its early days, the class and its focus on building things would include challenges that now seem simple: Students would build machines that could, if put at the top of a steep hill, go down the slowest. Over time, the competitions have become more elaborate.

Last year, the sophomores who took the class built robots that could play a game inspired by the children’s board game Operation. The “patient” the machines worked on was the MIT mascot — a beaver. This year, taking a page from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the students competed at MITSKI, in which the robots they built from scratch had to climb ski slopes, descend them with grace, collect slalom flags, return flags to the ski chalet, and collect medals.


“We wanted to come up with tasks the robots could perform that really stress good mechanical engineering principles, and the theme that fit that well was skiing and, more generally, the idea of going up and down a mountain,” said Amos Winter, an assistant professor who taught the class with Sangbae Kim. Winter donned the Yeti costume and safety glasses to emcee the event; Kim chose a pair of ski goggles, a big fuzzy hat, and a down coat.

The challenges are things that the students have already learned conceptually — if the center of gravity is in the wrong spot, the robots may flip backward, for example. They need to think about friction in order to keep their wheels from slipping.

Many of the students had solved those problems Thursday night, but there were some that somersaulted down the slope, wheels spinning in the air. As on any ski slope, there were a few crashes and tangles with trees as the robots negotiated the difficult downhill. But mostly the robots were adept, crawling up and doing laps repeatedly, trying to pick up a trophy at the bottom to multiply their score.

Some students built ski lifts that helped their robots zoom to the top of the course — one even involved an elaborate elevator with a bridge system. And perhaps the most amusing mountain-scaling technique was a catapult that launched wheel-shaped robots to the top.


Sophomore Clare Zhang built a petite robot focused on the double-black diamond part of the course. Like other students, she took advantage of a metal rail that the robot could grip to help it ascend the impossibly steep portion.

Zhang said that her robot, “Upper Body Strength,” was only the second one she’s ever built — she recently switched her major from materials science to mechanical engineering. She competed in a different robot competition in January in which she got “destroyed” by the competition, so she was excited to advance into the final rounds.

Jack Greenfield said he was proud that his robot, “Fire Hazard,” with a spare and simple design, had advanced to the final day of competition. The robot had skis in a V-shape in front, wheels in the back. He said he had tried more complicated designs, but decided to rebuild this scaled-back version in three days.

“For any other class, I’d be like, ‘I don’t want to go in any more than I have to,’ ” but for this class he was always excited to build — and the biggest lesson he learned was to fail early and often.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.