Mechanical engineering

Bird shot: Students launch plush blue jays in annual mechanical engineering challenge

Video: Deirdre Hammer

When designing their entry for this year's Mousetraps and Rubber Bands competition at Johns Hopkins University, first-year students Eyan Goldman, Justin Kim, and Arion Morshedian kept reminding one another of famous German industrial engineer Dieter Rams' "10 Principles of Good Design."

"Rams' basic message was: Good design is simple; it's as little design as possible," Kim said. "Less is better. So that is what we tried to do."

It worked.

On Wednesday afternoon in Shriver Hall, Team Rams—named for that inspiring German engineer, not for the somewhat less inspiring Los Angeles NFL franchise—beat out 14 other teams made up of 43 freshman mechanical engineering majors to take top honors in Mousetraps and Rubber Bands challenge, the final assignment in their Freshman Experiences in Mechanical Engineering course.

This fun but fierce competition has become something of an annual rite-of-passage, challenging teams to use two mousetraps, three rubber bands, and $15 worth of approved materials to design and construct a small vehicle that performs a certain task that changes year to year.

This year's task—dubbed "Bye Bye Blue Jay"—challenged students to build two-part gizmos with timing mechanisms that, on command, would launch a Blue Jay Beanie Baby off an elevated, upward sloping ramp and as far as possible across the Shriver Hall stage. Some teams riffed on the theme in their names—participating teams included the Jaywalkers, Merry Blue Jays, and Nested Loops.

According to Steven Marra—associate teaching professor, instructor for the course, and mastermind behind each year's challenge—the task teaches students about design approaches, potential and kinetic energy and friction, prototyping methods, and much more.

"It also teaches them time-management skills, teamwork skills, and how to use various simple tools," he said. "They also learn, if they didn't know it already, that things usually take a lot longer to accomplish than expected, that things rarely work out right the first time, and that design is an iterative process."

It sure was. The devices that took the stage at this week's competition were markedly different, for most teams (including the Rams), than the designs they started with in early November.

"We started out with a 9-foot tall ramp, but found out that would not be allowed in the competition," Goldman said. "So we started again."

Team Rams' winning design used a "sling shot" approach, which launched the Beanie Baby nested in a clear plastic hamster exercise ball clear across the Shriver Hall, sometimes sending onlookers scrambling to get out of the way.

"I thought all the teams did a great job," Marra said. "I was very impressed."