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You Can't Judge a Project by Its Poster

From left, Computer Engineering Technology students David Ruffins, Sandor Bocz and Michael Hernandez with Professor Iem Heng.

The long late-evening drive from New York City to Worcester, Massachusetts, on Friday, November 6, 2009, went about as expected. Behind the wheel, City Tech Computer Engineering Technology Professor Iem Heng’s mind mostly was on the road. The thoughts of his three passengers (students Sandor Bocz, Michael Hernandez and David Ruffins) mostly were on the National Science Foundation-funded 1st Annual Robotics Innovations Competition & Conference (RICC) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in which they had been invited to compete against students from schools as far away as California, Mexico and Egypt.

There was a fifth passenger in the car that evening, a robotic prototype named Equilibrium designed by Sandor, Michael and David to mimic the actions of a controlling human torso, arm and hand. Unlike most devices of its kind, the hand of the robot had five movable fingers. When in operation, both the robot’s arm and fingers were controlled and manipulated by a human operator wearing a glove and a sensor strapped to one arm. Applications of such a partnership between human and machine could serve a multitude of purposes in a vast array of industries. Securely tucked away in the trunk of Professor Heng’s car that evening, the robotic prototype wasn’t thinking about anything.

The three students’ interest in computer engineering goes beyond the classroom. All three work full time – Sandor, who lives in Brooklyn, for friends who run a computer service and repair business; Michael, a Manhattan resident, for Barclays’ information technology operations; and David, from Queens, for P.C. Richard & Son, a major electronics retailer. All three are thrilled with the career potential that computer engineering technology has to offer.

Sandor, the City Tech team leader, began tinkering with electronic devices and other gadgets as a young boy. “You had to see my room,” he says. “I mean, I had tons of stuff that I had taken apart but was less successful at putting back together. When I was older I bought myself a set of tools that made things a whole lot easier. And guess what? My room at home hasn’t changed that much over the years. Today, it looks like an electronics lab with a little bed in it.”

When Professor Heng, the three students and their robotic companion arrived at WPI on Saturday morning, they brought the car to a stop in front of the campus building where the competition was being held. Michael and David offered to run inside and check things out – where to unload their robotic passenger, where to park the vehicle, where to register and the like. The two were excited as they told Professor Heng and Sandor that they’d be back in a jiffy and eagerly made their way into the building.

A little while later they returned, got into the car, closed the door and promptly suggested to Professor Heng that he not bother looking for parking, but turn around and start the long drive back to New York City.

“You had to see the look on their faces,” Sandor recalls. “They were a little freaked out! It was like they had just received the worst news a person could ever get.”

Professor Heng and Sandor asked Michael and David what was wrong. Sandor recalls their saying something to the effect that it didn’t matter. They repeated that it would be best to turn the car around and go home. It had been a great experience building the robot and being selected by RICC to take part in the competition. They had no regrets, had learned a lot and had a great time. But it would be best to go home.

Pressed for details, Michael and David reported that they had passed the poster displays for the competition while scouting the premises. All of the other competitors’ posters were nothing short of fabulous – laminated and all that – and looking like they had been designed by Madison Avenue ad agencies. Every last one of them put City Tech’s little do-it-yourself poster to shame. If their posters are that great, the two argued, just imagine what their projects are like. It was just too humiliating, they continued. Yes, it was best to turn around right now and go home. Sandor further recalls that it took some doing to bring his two young companions to their senses.

“I told them that the competition wasn’t about the poster display,” Professor Heng recalls. “It was about the robotic arm and what it could do. The students’ robotic arm was very operationally innovative – a lot more innovative than some of the other projects, as things later turned out.”

Sandor put his foot down in no uncertain terms. “We’re here,” he told his teammates, “and we’re not turning back. They can put us on YouTube and laugh at our poster and our project, if that’s what they want to do. But we’ve done all this work and come this far. We’re not going home!” 
  

The group stayed, of course, and spent Saturday morning and afternoon demonstrating their project for round after round of judges. “Some judges kept a straight face and said little,” says Sandor, “while others expressed a lot of interest and asked a lot of questions. All I know is that whenever we did a demonstration, people from all over the room came over to watch. We repeatedly attracted quite a crowd. This didn’t seem to be the case with most of the other project demonstrations. In fact, it looked like a couple of teams had trouble getting their projects to do what they were supposed to do.”

The competition was open to outsiders on Sunday, which featured both public demonstrations and the awards ceremony. When the time came for Sandor, Michael and David to do their demonstration, people again got up out of their seats and came forward to have a better look.

“There’s nothing new about a robotic arm,” says Sandor, “but ours was unusual in that it had five moveable fingers. A lot of robotic arms have only two fingers that are more like pinchers than the human hand. What I think also impressed a lot of people was the fact that we didn’t use a ready-made five-fingered hand, but built one from scratch.”

By the time the awards ceremony got underway later on Sunday, Sandor, Michael and David were drained. It had been a hectic two days far away from home and their usual weekend activities. The highs and lows of the experience also had taken their toll. “We were feeling pretty good about all the attention our project received,” says Sandor, “as well as a little down after one judge blurted out something about our project being a bit ‘low-budget,’ or words to that effect. We were tired and looking forward to the weekend being over.”

That may explain why nothing at first registered on the three students when the individual officiating at the awards ceremony called out the name New York City College of Technology, adding something else afterwards. It was several seconds before one of the boys said to the others, “Hey, did somebody just say something about City Tech?”

Indeed, somebody had, and Sandor, Michael and David soon made their way to the stage to accept RICC’s first prize for innovation. What’s more, there would be a sixth passenger in the car on the long drive back to New York City later that day. The students were presented with a $5,000 gift package of electronic instruments and testing equipment.   

On the way back home, Professor Heng asked the three students if they remembered the fuss over the posters the day before and weren’t they glad that they had stayed to compete. “They were playing music and one of the three immediately turned the music way up, completely drowning me out.” 

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