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As parents crowd malls to buy their children gifts like Legos and Erector Sets for Christmas, teams of Brigham Young University engineering students are busy using those same toys to build complex robots in the culmination of a semester-long project.

Students in Kevin Smith's advanced engineering class will pit their custom-made machines against each other Wednesday in a competition designed to teach cross-disciplinary skills and showcase creativity at 2 p.m. in the main lobby of the Crabtree Technology Building.

Smith, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, says the contest is the crowning event of BYU's mechatronics course, which helps students integrate mechanical, electrical, computer and control engineering theories.

"Word got around last year that there was this class that let you play with Legos while teaching advanced technology, so we had quite a crowd at the competition," says Smith. "I expect it will be the same this year."

For the last four months, undergraduate and graduate student teams have been busy merging technology and toys to build small robotic forklifts that they hope will carry them to victory in Wednesday's competition.

"The assignment to design and build the mini-forklifts helps BYU engineering students take information they've learned in class and apply it to real-life situations," says Smith, who got the idea for BYU's program after hearing about a similar one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But don't let the kid's stuff fool you, he says. The robot forklifts are complicated machines that use modern microcontrollers, sensors and custom mechanical structures to negotiate the contest's course on their own.

As part of the mini-forklift challenge, the pre-programmed robots will perform tasks on a pre-determined track. To win, the forklifts must successfully follow a line, detect the position of automatic doors, identify and lift miniature wooden pallets placed in their path and move the pallets to other areas of the course.

The popularity of BYU's mechatronics class has doubled among students because of the success of last year's well attended forklift competition, says Smith, adding that undergraduate students make up more than half of the group.

Dwayne Rich, an electronic and engineering technology student, says getting the rack-and-pinion steering mechanism on his team's forklift to work has been a troubleshooting process full of trial and error.

"To get these things working by the end of the semester is quite a challenge," says Rich, who has had to rebuild his forklift three times to make it work properly.

"I'm just glad we went with Legos, or we'd have been in big trouble," he says.

Students receive $50 for parts, two sets of Legos and a microcontroller, but are not required to use them. Letting their imaginations go free, some students decided to use other materials such as steel, plastic, glue and string to give them some sort of competitive advantage.

To make his forklift sturdy enough to lift the wooden pallets on competition day, Dan Gunderson, an undergraduate student of manufacturing technology, says he built his forklift using an Erector Set. Because of the extra weight of the set's metal pieces, Gunderson also added a motor from a radio-controlled car to provide the extra punch needed to move the robot's wheels.

Other teams chose to build their forklifts almost entirely out of Legos.

Steve Jankovich, a mechanical engineering student, says he is thankful his team stuck with the colorful, interlocking blocks popular with children.

"A few weeks ago, our forklift went through a major reconstruction. We took it apart Lego by Lego and rebuilt it from the ground up," he says, adding that he didn't know what he would have done if he'd made the mistake of using less-forgiving building materials.

And although the class may sound like a bunch of kids playing on a Christmas morning, the students take the competition seriously.

Hugo Miza, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student from Comalapa, Guatemala, said he is sure his team will win the competition because of the team's less-is-more philosophy.

"We're going to win because our design is simple. Last year, people kept having problems with breakdowns. With us, there's less chance our forklift will break down when it's on the course," he says.

Miza's teammate Bruce Pixton, a graduate student in engineering technology from Fairfax, Va., doesn't seem to share the same level of confidence in the duo's custom-made contraption.

"Call me the pessimist of the group, but let me put it this way - - if it works, I'll really be excited," says Pixton laughing.

Pixton, who earned his undergraduate degree in physics teaching, says he hopes his team wins the competition, but no matter what happens, BYU's mechatronics class has taught him valuable lessons he'll take with him to his future profession.

"The things I've learned in the class will definitely help me in my career. Instead of asking, 'Why are those guys in such-and-such a department taking so long with this or that,' I'll better understand their challenges and be more patient," he says.

Writer: Grant Madsen