Engineers cook up electrifying creations

THE 2014 FIRST-PLACE TEAM DEMONSTRATES their autonomous robot to the judges.

RPI students have some eclectic pastimes. Sure, we have a Division I hockey team and as many intramural sports as the next school, but only at RPI can you find a significant number of students spending their time at organizations like Super Smash Brothers Club, Embedded Hardware Club, and the Rensselaer Center for Open Source Software. Some of the people in PULSE, the electronic music production club, have actually built parts of their own setups.

In 2012, Doug Mercer ’77 created a $500,000 endowment to celebrate RPI’s other great pastime: tinkering. The Douglas Mercer ’77 Laboratory for Student Exploration and Innovation is a state-of-the-art facility located on the sixth floor of the Jonsson Engineering Center. The company Analog Devices Inc. also contributed a significant donation. At the ribbon cutting, President Shirley Ann Jackson called the Mercer Lab “a forward-thinking investment in the Rensselaer electrical engineering experience,” and she really did mean that this is a tremendous lab, which most other universities can only dream of building.

Professors are not allowed to schedule class time in the space. Instead, the Department of Electrical, Computer & Systems Engineering pays assistants to help students use the lab for projects of their own choosing. The tools and instruments are among the best on campus and the stock cabinets are always filled with the most commonly needed electrical components. Innumerable students have taken advantage of the lab to work on class projects, hobby work, and even startup companies. That’s kind of the point of the Mercer Lab: this facility is like a playground for electrical engineers. You can use it too! Just walk in during the open hours or at a special event.

The annual Silicon Chef hardware hackathon is one example. Last Saturday, the Mercer Lab was packed with about 20 students that competed to design, build, and test the best solution to the secret design challenge. Participants had to use their raw engineering abilities to come up with solutions because the design challenge was not revealed until that morning of the event. Mr. Mercer himself joined Professors Russel Kraft and Mukkai Krishnamoorthy to judge the event, and the first-place team won a BeagleBone Black development board for each team member. This marks the third year that the Embedded Hardware Club organized the event using funds provided by the Department of Electrical, Computer & Systems Engineering.

Teams this year raised the bar for performance and collaboration. Students in engineering, science, and game design worked together seamlessly to make projects that reflected their unique backgrounds. I watched the event from the sidelines. It was exactly like watching olympic weightlifters try to one-up each other in progressively more impressive feats, except that instead of lifting weights, the teams in Silicon Chef were doing engineering work. One team couldn’t find the right sensor to measure the color of objects under their robot. To solve the problem, they simply soldered a single photodetector circuit that used math to measure periodic pulses from their red, blue, and green photodiode assembly. Another team needed to measure the distance traveled by their robot car, so they hacked together a tachometer using one sensor and about half a roll of electrical tape. This level of problem solving really impressed the judges.

Sound interesting to you? Keep an eye out for a new design challenge next year. In the meanwhile, you can check out student clubs and take advantage of walk-in hours at the Mercer Lab.

Silicon Chef would not be possible without the support of alumni like Mercer and department heads like Professor Kim Boyer. They’re some of the people that make the whole Mercer Lab possible in the first place. I’m convinced that Rensselaer provides us one of the best engineering educations in the world—not only because the curriculum is comprehensive and challenging, but also because spaces like the Mercer Lab are built specifically to give us the chance to discover what matters most to us. It’s likely that in a few decades the things we work with will be more advanced than anything that exists today. We’ll need to advance our skills and knowledge to keep up. But one thing that places like the Mercer Lab have instilled in me forever is the ability to think critically outside of the classroom and gain knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge.