In the “Creative Machines” class, students design and build instruments from scratch

During the first week of the course, students used a common design program to create their own designs, first a coffee mug, then a toy car powered by a rubber band. Then they 3D printed each car and raced them to see which one went the farthest. Then they incorporated electronics, modifying the cars to use a small motor controlled by a computer chip and a sensor, with the ultimate goal of designing a car that swerves away from walls or obstacles.

“Controlling the device, giving it a way to sense its surroundings, and then programming to decide what to do with that information — those are really the three essential parts of pretty much anything you’re going to build,” Meyer said.

In the real world, Meyer added, every design step requires making many decisions. For example, as students think about how to design a car that avoids hitting objects as it moves, they know it will need a measuring device to detect obstacles. Some students chose light beam sensors, others ultrasonic sensors, and one team even got whiskers, like a cat. “Each option has its advantages and disadvantages, and in engineering, these must be considered against factors such as weight, cost and development time. This class exposes students to these kinds of problems Meyer said.

Between lab work, there are lectures on the basics of programming, design, and electronics, as well as guest lectures from professionals currently working in the field such as Benjamin Stillwell, a research engineer who works with scientists from UChicago to develop their scientific instruments.

Initial course offerings will guide students through the design and execution process; they are considering later offerings specializing in electronics and even project management.

“I love this class. It has a bit of everything,” said Hanjue Zhu, a graduate student in astrophysics.

“In many other UChicago courses, you learn theory,” said sophomore undergraduate Todd Tan, “but in this course, we make it real.”

Ultimately, faculty hope the course will prepare students for careers in virtually any field. Some students come from physics and astrophysics majors, but others come from neuroscience, computer science, chemistry, math, and art.

“Understanding the basics of engineering and how to use power tools has opened many doors for me,” Wakely said. “I hope that will be the case for them too.”

Abdul J. Gaspar