Live News Broadcast Highlights Hovercraft Competition, Keystone Program

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Hovercraft cue up for their turn on a course which requires them to follow a line, activate and pass through a gate, and navigate around several turns. The craft are not remote controlled but autonomous—they must accomplish these tasks using only the sensors, computers and equipment the students designed for them.

Reporter Holly Morris broadcast live from the spring ENES 100: Introduction to Engineering Design autonomous hovercraft competition as part of Washington, D.C.'s Fox5 Morning News' coverage. (See video below.)

Each semester, teams of freshmen engineering students from all majors design and build hovercraft equipped with fans, a steering system, an on-board computer, and sensors. The vehicles, which average about three feet in length, must guide themselves through a course by "seeing" and following a black line around a number of turns. They must also trigger a gate to open. Each team tries to program its hovercraft to complete the course within ten minutes without bumping into the side walls.

The hovercraft competition is part of the Clark School's Keystone program, which is dedicated to excellence in the teaching of fundamental engineering courses. The program serves as a national model for increasing engineering student retention and graduation rates.

"The philosophy behind Keystone is that you try to expose the students to the most challenging and engaging engineering concepts early on," Department of Materials Science and Engineering faculty member and Keystone Professor John Cumings explains. "Part of the motivation behind the program was to increase retention not by making things easier, but paradoxically by making things more difficult, more challenging, and more engaging. The hovercraft competition helps students improve their collective problem solving skills."

The program benefits the faculty as well. "Personally I find it really inspiring to see some of the solutions the students come up with—things I wouldn't have predicted or even guessed would have worked!" says Cumings. "It reminds me why I became an engineer."

Learn More:

Visit the Keystone web site »

Read more about the Keystone Program and hovercraft competition in the current issue of the Clark School's E@M magazine »

Watch the News Segments:

Published May 13, 2010