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Posted November 23, 2012

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Engineering Fun

Students engineer a good cup of coffee

For most of us, pouring a cup of coffee is a routine task. But for a group of second-year students at Conestoga’s Engineering and Information Technology campus, getting their morning coffee is anything but routine.

Kitchener - Students in the Mechanical Engineering Technology Robotics & Automation program recently unveiled their coffee-pouring ‘Rube Goldberg’ machines. Based on machines popularized in the 1940s and 50s by Rueben Lucius ‘Rube’ Goldberg, a Rube Goldberg machine is a highly complex device created to perform a simple task. In this case, a simple roll of a marble set off a complex chain reaction that ended with coffee being poured into a cup.

For students, this exercise was an opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience that will serve them in the workplace. Henry Kastner, a professor in the mechanical engineering technology program, said the purpose of the exercise was to simulate what students will experience when working with a client.

“Usually the client will come and request something with very specific parameters. And that’s it. And you need to come up with the solution.” Kastner said this activity represents the culmination of all the students’ learning. “This course is problem-solving and design. So what I teach them is the tools to use for problem-solving and how to come up with a solution.”

Kastner says that he was purposefully vague with his instructions to students, other than giving the required dimensions of the machine and what the desired outcome was: a perfectly poured cup of coffee. Students were evaluated on a number of different criteria; touching or adjusting the machine mid-operation meant a loss of marks. Failing to complete the task within the allotted time also meant a deduction. Students were not only marked on whether or not their machine could complete the task, but also if their machine could repeat the task several more times without human intervention.

Machine2.png Second-year student Cody Rawn explained that having access to hands-on projects was the reason he chose Conestoga. “I really enjoy doing the hands on stuff,” said Rawn. “That was one of the key reasons for choosing engineering technology at college instead of at university. I want to do the hands-on stuff and learn to apply it.”

“It is a lot of work for the students,” said Kastner. “But it’s about time management, which is part of what I teach. And sometimes, the only way to learn that is by experience.”

For the students, it was also a lesson in patience. For most teams, machines didn’t work exactly as planned, meaning some human interaction and troubleshooting was required on the fly. After some tweaking, most teams managed to pour a cup of coffee. Kastner said this is all part of the experience. “At the end of the exercise we go through some troubleshooting and do an analysis to try and determine why it worked one time and not another.”

Rawn is already looking to take his experience at Conestoga and apply it to the working world. “Once I have finished here I want to start working. I really enjoy working with PLCss (Programmable Logic Controllers) and the programming aspect as well as automation.”

After having spent over a month on their machine, bringing together elements that each individual team member designed, Rawn said the final week was spent finishing construction and getting ready for the big day. In the end, their machine managed to pour a cup of coffee. There were a few hiccups and some minor adjustments, but overall their Rube Goldberg machine lived up to its name, performing a very simple task with the highest level of complexity.


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