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Murphy’s Law and Freshman Robotics

 Written by    March 6, 2017

Brought to you by the robots and characters (robot characters?) from the movie Interstellar, because why not.

Yesterday, four hours into a group meeting with my Fundamentals of Engineering Honors robot group, I had a realization. Fiddling with erector pieces, looking at a robot that could not even drive properly, let alone execute the graded task that it had to perfect in less than 24 hours, I said. “It seems like whatever can go wrong, will go wrong with this stupid thing.”

Blinking and looking upward from the code, my teammate replied, very simply, “Well, that’s just Murphy’s Law.”

For those of you that don’t know, or for those of you that are looking into engineering as a major, the honors engineering course at Ohio State involves a semester long lesson in problem solving in the spring semester of your freshman year.

My robot group before every single assignment/performance test is due.

Murphy’s Law is almost verbatim to the sentiment I expressed earlier. Whatever can go wrong with a situation, will go wrong. In words, the idea is palatable, but seeing it in practice is eye opening, frustrating, and even a little fulfilling. At every step of the way—from designing, to redesigning, to building, to rebuilding—my team has encountered problems. We estimate that to date we’ve spent a collective 23 hours brainstorming and problem solving. It seems like a lot of time to just sit around and think, but when a robot running on hot glue and hope gets you a 23/20 on a performance test, when a robot that two hours ago couldn’t even move is now chugging up ramps and pulling levers, you have to step back and think, what got me here? How is something that was frustrating and ugly and terrible and stressful mere moments ago now so flawless and fulfilling? There is a singular euphoria in watching your own logic and imagination take shape successfully. Maybe that makes the class worth taking. Maybe it makes the accidents, the miscalculations, the blown tests, and the endless logical dead-ends paler in comparison.

That feeling when your robot is finally working.

So here’s the gist: this course is difficult, it’s required, and it’s time consuming. But the level of creative thinking, ingenuity, and freedom that comes with it is pretty much ruled by nature. When something goes wrong (and by God it will go wrong), you have to come up with a creative solution to fix it. Period. Our material is too hard to drill through? We’ll hot glue it. We don’t know how to attach this motor? That’s what tape was invented for.

Welcome to engineering.



Tars the walking robot

Worried McConaughey

Robot carrying human

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