First-year engineers at the annual design competition

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Mechanical engineering

Bananas, sleighs, and gears, oh my!

The MechE Freshmen Design Competition is an annual Whiting School of Engineering rite-of-passage for teams of first-year students who pit their carefully crafted vehicles against each other for bragging rights and prizes

Some were small and compact; others, larger and sprawling. Most were stripped down to a Steampunk aesthetic of bare grinding gears and wheels, but others were decorated to resemble items ranging from bananas and carrots to a glittery red holiday sleigh carrying Santa Claus.

No matter their appearance, the goal was the same: Send a device powered only by gravitational potential energy down an elevated cable stretching 66 feet across the Glass Pavilion to the finish line—and do it faster than anyone else.

Welcome to the MechE Freshmen Design Competition, an annual Whiting School of Engineering rite-of-passage event held each December. This year, 28 teams of first-year mechanical engineering students rose to the challenge, pitting their carefully crafted vehicles against each other for bragging rights and prizes.

Video credit: Aubrey Morse / Johns Hopkins University

"How these devices perform depends a lot on how well they are constructed and the students' understanding of potential energy," said Steven Marra, associate teaching professor, instructor for the Intro to MechE Design & CAD course, and mastermind of this (and every) year's challenge. "You can have a great idea but if it's not well-constructed then it is not going to function the way they want it to. We are about to see how they do!"

Accompanied by the cheers of spectators, some sped fluidly along the wire track, reaching their destination in seconds. Others faltered at the starting line. More than a few chugged happily along for a few feet before the 1-liter water bottle serving as a falling weight on most vehicles snagged on a barrier intentionally located near the starting line.

In the end, a simple, compact design by Team Sam's Gang (Samuel Lihn, Bill Wang, and Jonathan Peng) glided to victory over Team Banana Bread (Michael Israel, Elizabeth Chua, and Ryan Garza).

"In the end, it performed well," said Lihn, whose teammates credited the win largely to his engineering acumen and work ethic.

They posited that the device's compact design, light weight, and stability on the wire led it to success over its fierce fruit-themed competitor.

"It was not getting thrown around by the cable, going up and down, which helped us in the end," Wang said.