With sights on second victory, students prepare mechanical mouse

When Dat Vo transferred to Penn State Harrisburg as a junior, he didn’t imagine his classes would teach him how to build a robotic mouse to enter a multi-state competition. Or, that he would take first place.

“When I came here a year and a half ago, I didn’t know anything about (the competition),” said the electrical engineering technology senior.

Now Vo, of York, and a group of electrical engineering and electrical engineering technology juniors and seniors, will look to take their second victory as they head to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Region 2 Student Activities Conference. Held on April 19 and 20 in Morgantown, W.Va., the event will draw top colleges from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Southern New Jersey, Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

Vo, secretary of the IEEE student branch on campus, along with senior Nate Archibald, of Queens, N.Y.; senior Jaimin Patel, of Philiadelphia; and junior Andrew Zern, of Cheswick, will compete in the “scratch” Micromouse Competition, which requires students to construct an autonomous robotic “mouse” from scratch, that must navigate to the center of an approximately 64-square-foot random maze in the shortest amount of time possible. This is the second go-around for Vo and Zern; the only difference – last year, they constructed the mouse from a pre-built kit.

“The kit competition isn’t as fierce as the one from scratch,” said Jasper Silknetter, of Denver, Pa., an electrical engineering technology major and IEEE vice chair who was part of the winning team last year.

Other contests at the conference include the Physics Competition, which challenges students’ mathematics skills, and the Brown Bag Competition, which requires students to use the random contents of a paper bag to solve a problem.

Vo’s courses have given him the blueprint to assemble the custom-built robot, which requires the construction and alignment of the mechanical frame, the installation of motors and computer chips, and the coding of the robot. A trial and error process, coding requires the students to calculate algorithms and to program the robot’s sensors to learn the rules of, and identify its own location within, the maze.

Vo is confident that the skills he has learned at Penn State Harrisburg, and his prior contest experience, have prepared him for this year’s challenge.

“Last semester, I took power electronics, where we learned about different kinds of motors and driving circuits,” Vo said. He is also proficient with the software program C++, so programming is a familiar language for him. 

The team tries to meet weekly to work on the robot, but the competition isn’t the only endeavor the students are undertaking. With engineering senior design projects due in May, the teams’ three seniors have a lot on their plate.

Also, many graduating seniors are interviewing for jobs or have already accepted one. Silknetter has accepted a position as test protection engineer at the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, the electricity supplier for Oklahoma’s municipal-owned systems. Vo has accepted a position as software engineer at Connecticut-based Pratt and Whitney, jet engine manufacturer.

Vo said that the real world application and skills he has picked up from competing has prepared him for the next stage of his career, but other skills he said he acquired along the way – professionalism, time management and problem solving – will help him regardless of where his career takes him.

Silknetter understands the implication of the hands-on experience. “This competition helps you to realize how ‘real’ the real-world is,” he said.

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Last Updated April 08, 2013