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Letter to Educators
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The Frontiers Decade:
Contests and Competitions

Student contests have been a popular subject on Frontiers. Viewers looked forward to watching the annual MIT Student Engineering Competition, the ultimate test of inventiveness and ingenuity. Frontiers followed students through the stages of planning, building and testing entries in such contests as "Close Encounters of the Remote Kind" and "Pass the Puck."

King of the Hill
Simply Marvelous Machines
Flying Robots
Leaning Tower Challenge


Two mechanical engineering professors at MIT, Woodie Flowers and Harry West, helped create the now famous Student Engineering Contest. Students enrolled in MIT's 2.007 Design and Manufacturing course are given identical kits of assorted machine parts and motors. Their challenge: design and build a device that will perform a certain task better than any of their classmates' machines.

In this simpler version, students must build a vehicle that climbs a hill and blocks the opposing team's vehicle in its path. You'll need to plan ahead to conduct the classroom contest, and you'll need to reserve a large area like the gym or cafeteria.


  • 2 coffee cans with plastic lids
  • 4 plastic soft drink bottles (1 or 2 L)
  • 8 rubber bands
  • 2 mouse traps
  • 4 4-oz. lead sinkers
  • 1 12" x 24" x 1/4" piece of plywood
  • 4 jar lids
  • 2 wire coat hangers
  • 1 meter wooden dowel (any diameter)
  • 1 12" x 12" piece of cardboard
  • 1 meter piece of string
  • metal fasteners (paper clips, screws, bolts, nails, etc.)
  • glue or cement

Design and build a vehicle that will climb a hill, cross the crest and prevent your opponent from crossing in the opposite direction. The objective is to end the match with your vehicle and your opponent's on the opposite side of the hill from where you started.


  1. Use only the materials listed to build your vehicle. It is not necessary to use all the items listed.

  2. Your vehicle may use any means you can devise for reaching the other side of the hill and preventing your opponent from reaching your side.

  3. Your vehicle must be self-propelled. You may touch it to start, but you may not give it a push after the match has begun. It may leave nothing at the starting line.

  4. Your vehicle may be no longer than 12 inches and no wider than 8 inches at the moment it starts.

  5. The hill will rise 3 inches from its base. The base on each side of the hill will be 3 feet from the crest. The starting line on each side will be 2 feet from the crest. The sides should be 3" high to prevent either vehicle from falling off the hill and the incline should be 10" wide.

  6. Vehicles will compete two at a time. The winner will advance to the next round with other winners. The competition will continue to a championship round.

  7. After 15 seconds or when all motion has stopped, whichever comes first, the vehicle that remains on the opposite side of the hill from its start will be declared the winner. If neither vehicle has crossed the crest or both finish on the sides opposite their starts, a draw will be declared and both vehicles will be disqualified.


  1. Work in teams of two or three students.

  2. Develop several approaches to the problem. Weigh the probability of each design's success before deciding which to use.

  3. Use materials in any way -- cut, shaped, etc.

  4. A vehicle may run on wheels or tracks. It may launch itself through the air. It may extend an arm, throw or drop an object, bulldoze the opponent or take any other action to prevent the opposing vehicle from crossing the crest. It must, however, do so automatically, once the machine has been started.

  5. Plywood or flake board can be used to make the double-inclined plane. The 3" rise may sound slight, but it is an 8% grade, a good hill on any highway. The sides should be securely fixed to prevent either vehicle from going over the edge. The 3" sides also help eliminate steering as a part of the problem and facilitate "bulldozing."

  6. Run second-chance contests for all the second-place vehicles, through the quarterfinals. The winner of the second-chance contests will take on the champ.


Each year, students participating in the MIT Student Engineering Contest are given identical kits of assorted materials, which may include such seemingly unrelated items as a cardboard tube, a constant force spring, an O-ring, a giant paper clip and half of a plastic robot's head. Their challenge is to design and build a device that will accomplish a specific task, then enter the device in a contest.

In this classroom contest, you'll use simple machines to build a device that will lift an iron washer from the top of a table (or other surface) to a height of exactly 10 cm, then drop it from that height into a paper cup placed next to the washer.

Before working on the contest, find examples of each of the six simple machines depicted below. For example, lever -- bottle opener; inclined plane -- ramp; wedge -- chisel; pulley -- pulley attached to car's fan belt; screw -- corkscrew; wheel and axle -- bike wheel. An excellent resource is The New Way Things Work by David Macaulay (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).


Any combination of the six simple machines shown above, string or monofilament, iron washer, paper cup, magnet(s), empty plastic soda bottles, mousetraps, straws, coat hangers, steel spheres, marbles, water, etc.


  1. No electrical or battery-powered devices may be used. However, mechanical devices may be used.

  2. Any combination of simple machines may be used.

  3. Some object(s) must be moved through your device (marbles, for example).

  4. The washer and paper cup must be placed next to each other on the table top, separated by no more than 10 cm.

  5. Once the motion starts, you may not touch anything on your device. The washer must be lifted from the tabletop and dropped into the cup without human assistance.

  6. Your device should have a theme.


A scoring system is suggested, but if you wish, modify it or eliminate it. Work in teams. Have fun, and good luck!

Simple machines used 2 points each
Everyday materials used to build
simple machines from scratch
10 points each
Object climbs up inclined plane 1 point per cm
Object transported by wheel and
axle or pulley
1 point each cm x mass of object (g)
Object propelled across a gap mass of object (g) x gap width x 2 points
Washer lifted to exact height of 10 cm 10 points
Theme is evident (props, pictures,
scenery, etc.)
2 points
Theme music played during operation 2 points
Project works from beginning to end without human assistance multiply total by 10


MIT's annual design contest has inspired countless competitions at high schools and colleges. To find out more about the 2.007 contest, including rules for this year's contest inspired by the Mars Pathfinder mission, visit

Look for MIT Competitions in Shows 102, 105, 301, 303 and 403. Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Students competing in the first International Aerial Robotics Competition encountered some major problems. Computer breakdowns, mechanical and landing malfunctions were just some of them. Their challenge: to design a robot that lifts off from the ground, searches an area the size of a volleyball court and retrieves small metal disks from an enclosed ring. Despite their setbacks, student contestants remained enthusiastic throughout the contest. Many students returned the next year to try again, with a different challenge. The competition is now an annual event.

In this activity, you'll have a chance to design -- and perfect -- a flying machine.


Hold a "magnetic capture" contest. Here's how: Place a paper clip on each square of a checkerboard. Then tie a length of string 1 meter long to a small magnet. Each contestant must use this device to capture the clips (one at a time) resting on the red squares of the board. Each participant has one minute to capture as many clips as possible. For each incorrect clip retrieved, the contestant must forfeit one of the correct clips.


In this activity, you'll build an aerial ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) and use it to pick up items.


  • 3 medium helium-filled balloons
  • small DC motor
  • plastic plane propeller
  • glue
  • light gauge coated wire
  • battery and holder
  • magnet/string assembly (used in Part I)

  1. Glue a propeller onto the shaft of a small DC motor.

  2. Use string to secure two helium-filled balloons together.

  3. Wrap a length of string around the motor so it's balanced on its side. Use string to attach this assembly to the helium-filled balloons.

  4. Attach two pieces of light gauge coated wire, each about two feet long, to the positive/negative charges of the battery. While holding the battery, wires and holder, attach the free ends of the wires to the motor's terminals or wires. What happens? Reverse the leads and watch again.

  5. How could you improve this design?

  6. Once you are satisfied with your design and understand the control of the ROV, attach the string/magnet assembly from Part I. Then, use this aerial ROV to pick up the clips.


  1. The magnet used in the Part I activity should be light enough so it can be carried aloft by the ROV constructed in Part II.

  2. Although two medium-sized balloons are recommended, the number and size of the balloons will depend upon the weight of the motor/propeller assembly. Plastic propellers are sold either individually or in balsa airplane kits. To reverse prop direction, reverse the leads to the battery. If the prop spins too fast, use a battery with a lower voltage. You'll discover that the buoyancy and direction of your ROV can be influenced (and controlled) by the way you hold the connecting wires.

  3. Remember to keep all software, audio and videotapes away from the magnets used in these activities.


The International Aerial Robotics Competition ("the ultimate collegiate challenge") is sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Most contestants are from colleges in the U.S. and other countries, but there is also a high school division. For information, rules, future contests, plus videos and photos of past competitions, including the Millennial Event, go to

Frontiers filmed the very first International Aerial Robotics Competition ("Flying Robots" in Show 202), then returned a few years later to film a later competition, which included students from a Virginia high school ("Robo-Flyers" in Flying High, Show 603).Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about these Frontiers shows and related activities!


One of Italy's most popular tourist attractions, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, needs help. Despite a 10 tilt, the tower stood for more than 800 years, but as it continued to lean, it had to be closed for safety reasons. Engineers are looking for a way to keep the tower from falling over and becoming a former wonder.

The tower is the site of what was reputed to be the first true science experiment -- namely, the test conducted by Galileo Galilei in the 16th century and re-enacted by host Alan Alda on Frontiers in Science Italian Style (Show 503).

When engineers study problems like the tilt of the Pisa tower, they construct physical models to test their theories before trying them on real buildings. Here's your chance to build your own tower and measure its maximum tilt before it topples. Your challenge is to build a tower using only straws and modeling clay -- and then see how far your tower can tilt before it falls over. (The tower shown in the diagram below is just one example -- be creative in your design to see if you can do better.) You may wish to conduct this activity within a certain time frame, to make it more competitive.


  • straws
  • modeling clay
  • protractor
  • scissors
  • heavy stock cardboard

  1. Build a tower out of straws and modeling clay. Place your tower on top of the cardboard base.

  2. Raise one end of the cardboard base so that the tower tilts by 10. Measure the angle with a protractor. Wait 30 seconds, then record any change in the tower's appearance.

  3. Increase the tilt by another 10. Wait 30 seconds, then record any change in the tower's appearance. Continue increasing the tilt angle by 10 increments, until the tower topples.


  1. At what angle did the tower become unsteady?

  2. How did the amount of clay used in your tower's construction affect the structure's stability? Explain.

  3. How might increasing the wait time to 60 seconds affect your results? Explain.

  4. If you had a ruler instead of a protractor, how would you determine the angle of the base tilt?

  5. Can you improve your tower's stability? First, make a drawing of your revised design. Then construct a new tower and determine the angle at which the structure begins to topple.


  1. Build a "leaning tower of Pisa" out of uncooked fettuccini or other pasta and modeling clay. Can you make it lean without falling?

  2. Can you brainstorm any other ways to correct the tower's tilt?

  3. In recent years, engineers have experimented with several methods to keep the tower from falling over. In 1999, engineers undertook a soil-excavation technique that took the tower's lean back to where it was in 1970. They hope to stabilize the tower so the popular site can once again be open to tourists.

Q: What keeps the Leaning Tower of Pisa from falling over?

A: The tower's center of gravity. A structure's stability depends upon its center of gravity. Mass placed above this center may increase a tower's tilt, eventually causing the structure to topple. Mass equally distributed below will add stability. All objects, including towers and people, have a center of gravity or balance point. Where do you think yours is located?


The original story about the tower appeared in "Fixing the Leaning Tower of Pisa" (Science Italian Style, Show 503). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about this show and related activities!


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