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the contours of a wild ride by Amber V. '24

2.009 😤

2.009 presentations were December 11th. Theme: WILD! 2.009 is a MechE capstone class in which six teams each create a new product. It’s known for being intense, silly, and a lot of fun. This blog is my story of 2.009.01 pronounced 'two double-oh nine,' referred to among Course 2s as 'double-oh nine'  

pink team on a see-saw outside

Field Day ft PINK TEAM! From left: Tony, Kevin, Lingyi, Erin, Isa (front), me, Richard (front), Randy (top), Jane, Edward, Gage, Heine

2.009 was a blast. We made balloon towers and had a relay race while wearing bright colored helmets. Professor Wallace stood in a gigantic tree. We also built products.

The first month or so was an ideation stage. I proposed several things, but the most popular of my ideas was an adjustable platform boot that could lift a person up to see above crowds at concerts. Everyone laughed when I talked about it, for obvious reasons. This idea made it to the second-to-last round, and the first of four major milestones in the class.

For this milestone, we split into four sub-teams and worked on four ideas: my boot platforms, called Concert Lift; an automated trash can; a walking cane that uses sonar; and a line-following laser cutter.

I worked with three teammates to make a presentation, look-alike model, and two working models that demonstrated possible mechanisms for Concert Lift. We used a linear actuator and air bags as two different potential mechanisms, and had a lot of fun walking around on giant blocks of foam.

After that milestone, the entire team voted on which product we wanted to move forward with. Concert Lift was second, so it was not continued, but it lived on every time we crowded in for a group photo and moved short people to the front. “We need Concert Lift!”

We voted to build Contour, the line-following laser cutter y’all saw on stage. 

us cheering on killian steps

Pink Team cheering after we chose Contour

Our second milestone was to have a product sheet, pricing, electronics diagram, and CAD finished. I remember little of this now except a 12-hour rush in the ground floor of Stud, starting at 12 noon and ending around 1am. We did a lot of CAD. In fact we finished the CAD. I left thinking that while the experience was kinda fun, it became a lot less fun around hour #3, and I never wanted to spend 12 hours on 2.009 in one sitting again.

 

Our third milestone was a physical model of the laser cutter for technical review.

We divided up into three teams: Software, MechE, and User Interface (UI/UX). I was originally placed on MechE, which is fitting, because I have taken zero course 602 course 6 = comp sci. I did take one MechE class on matlab classes at MIT. At the next meeting, I noticed that Software only had four members, while MechE had seven, and Software had a lot of work to do.

“Hey Erin, does Software need more people?” I asked. 

Erin, the head of Software, nodded. “Do you want to join?”

I was hesitant —see above the vast coding experience I had— but they did need more people, so I said, “Sure.” And from then on I was a software engineer. 

tech review model!

tech review model!

MechE pulled a late night in the basement of N51, cajoling the biggest water-jet on campus into cutting giant sheets of metal. They assembled a tech review model, and UI spent another night priming and painting the exterior. Then it was Software’s turn. The night before technical review, Erin, Isa, and Gage hauled the tech review model, our monitor and keyboard set-up, and many tools and wires up to MechE Lounge. I came after class; Grace dropped off a new camera; and Tony, who was on the MechE sub-team, not Software, came to help as well.

We set the lights low, so the room was lit by the LEDs inside the laser cutter body, shining through the orange acrylic window.03 our orange acrylic window protects your eyes from the wavelengths of light that our laser emits The acrylic didn’t cover everything, as there were a few gaps and front panel wasn’t attached, so we wore red laser-protective glasses to protect our eyes. We blasted edm and pop from the MechE Lounge speakers, which nearly drowned out the rattling of the gantry when the motors ran. 

Around 4am, each individual software component was working: the camera took pictures, Gage’s undistortion software undistorted them, Isa’s code found the centerlines of images, and the motors ran off of an arduino if commands were sent with large delays. But compiling these steps together, to run as a state machine without need for a monitor, was a different challenge entirely. We called it quits for the night.

 

The next day, we kept grinding led fearlessly by Erin, the insanely talented head of Software.

erin

Erin making the state machine

Technical review was at 7pm, and we worked all day, interfacing with different members of Pink Team as needed. A big issue was communication with the motors. The motors worked when sent commands one by one via an arduino, but when we tried to send commands from the raspberry pi to the arduino, the serial communication kept getting jumbled, causing the motors to zig-zag, or jump, or simply make grinding noises without moving at all. We reached the grinding noises stage just as the tech review deadline came, and staff from all parts of 2.009 came in to see what we’d built. I wept internally but externally I was presenting to all of the staff. 

After tech review, we had about a month after that before the final presentation. Software decided to scrap the pi-to-arduino communication and run everything off the raspberry pi.04 over Thanksgiving, Tony found a separate work-around using an arduino, but this was passed over in favor of a pi and stepper motor HAT During Thanksgiving break, Erin and I came in every day and pounded out code until the motors ran smoothly. This breakthrough was mostly Erin, but I provided important input such as bringing us chocolate coins. 

At this point, we also needed to figure out electronics we didn’t want to use breadboards and five separate wall plugs for the final version so I took that as my next task after break.

Isa and gage with the final

Isa and Gage during Software’s  all-nighter

Then… well the rest is a blur.

I was chosen as a presenter, along with Grace and Tony. Grace and Juliana focused on building the storyline and presentation, while Tony and I squeezed practice sessions and workshops with CI-M instructors into what were becoming 12-hour days in Pappa. He led the construction of the gantry; I wrangled the electronics into being.

Two or three days before the final presentation, I tested the electronics on their final protoboards, and everything lit up the way we wanted and didn’t burst into flames.05 if this were to happen, our built-in fan would siphon the smoke away through a window vent...

MechE finished the final gantry,06 axes on which the laser moves and we started mounting the electronics. UI thermo-formed the plastic walls and painted them, and bent the acrylic carefully, as it was prone to cracking.

Software pulled their first all-nighter for this milestone on Saturday night, two days before the final presentation.07 since I was working mainly on electronics at this point I fortunately got to sleep.

On Sunday, one day before, the final walls were attached to the gantry.

At 10pm, I spent about an hour walking around the third floor of campus, saying my lines aloud and startling many a nocturnal researcher. By 11, my script was finalized and mostly memorized.

On Sunday night, Software pulled their second all-nighter.

On Monday, we attached the last parts that needed attaching…

Then we finished Contour, and presented, and the following day I woke up and wrote all the thoughts in my head…

written Tuesday morning, Dec 12, after the presentation

contour professional image

I don’t know how to describe this experience. Not just the last ten days — oh my — but everything before it. I actually feel so close to this team. I have so much warmth and respect and appreciation for them — especially Erin and Isa and Tony. They put in the work. When one of our mentors said that this was the best team we’d ever work on, I didn’t believe him, but now I think he has a point. 

I will seek out good teams like this now. I haven’t really been on a team in this way — where we’re all passionate about what we’re creating, where we’re building a complex, multi-system project, where everyone works hard. The all-consuming nature of this project actually made the experience so much better because I got to know my team and feel close to them.

cad model

CAD model of the final version of Contour

Back to the experience. Like bro I dreamed of this. I dreamed of it tonight actually, had a dream that all of us standing on the stage were wired metaphorically in parallel and our team mentor was plugging in power and gnd.

Each day I was exhausted by 10pm when the lab closed — I could barely stay awake to hang with my friends. I so deeply needed the 6 hours08 this is more than usual lol, because I could not function at this level of productivity on less of sleep I afforded myself every night. Then I’d wake up, nuke whatever free food I’d scavenged the previous day, and stumble to lab in search of free caffeine. 12 hours of deep focus each day,09 AND the walk to lab was uphill BOTH WAYS interrupted sometimes by classes or meetings or going for lunch. I could not survive with this as my every day, but the 10 (or rightly 20) days of it right now felt like a fever dream in both a good and bad way.

wires

raspberry pi and pi HAT

My job the last milestone was to do the electronics. That means wiring up the laser, fan, lights, Raspberry pi, and stepper motor controller, as well as the limit switches and buttons, and plugging the whole jumble into the wall.10 we were quite safe about this and checked everything with our knowledgeable EE professor and his big yellow box I should add that I’ve taken all of one electronics class during a sleepless sophomore year.

When my stuff wasn’t working — first my buck converters didn’t arrive on time, and then the fan was so unstable it made the lights flicker, and I made an error the first time I calculated total power needs — I felt so panicked, and only adrenaline pushed me through. I couldn’t have the machine not work because of me. But I got the electronics working — with plenty of help from Winnie and Steve, and Erin and I stress-ordering extra buck converters that turned out to be essential, and others on the team pitching in to help solder or grab extra wires from Stata — and after that, everything felt so much better.

breadboard

I blew up a capacitor

Then it was only a matter of testing and assembling everything together: meche’s gantry, UX’s blue plastic casing and lid, and the electronics and software. That was hard, especially since the core people driving assembly were either juggling presentation prep, or pulling all-nighters to calibrate the camera and motors with our software. I got closer to my team in those last days, though, and appreciated how hard everyone worked.

me building stuff

It feels so good to be deeply focused on something. I’m lucky that I could put everything else on pause for 14 days—literally everything else, like I did my laundry Monday morning—and fall into this focus. I imagine it would be a lot more stressful to be drawn into the all-consuming pit of 2.009 when your life cannot all be consumed. I want to feel this 1-2 times a year, I think. This specifically — falling deeply into one system, having complex parts of it held clearly in your mind, kept afloat by adrenaline. I want to be in a startup, like a new burgeoning start-up that’s trying to get its foot in the door, get its bright shiny idea to actually work.

Of course having experts on everything from machining to EE to CS just 20 feet away from you at all times is a rare and valuable thing. MIT’s “make it work” motto rings differently when you can do that by asking someone who knows more than you just how to make it work. Figuring this all out on our own, supported by only stackoverflow and youtube and chatgpt, would have been honestly pretty rough. Of course, in industry there will be experienced co-workers — we are in fact college students — so perhaps it balances out somewhat, but I think this experience was special.

I enjoy being a leader. Grace and Tony were excellent SIs, and I want to develop that skillset in myself. I started delegating more throughout this 14-day11 I really do not know how many days. I think it will keep increasing the more times I tell this story. hell cycle before final presentations, since I knew what needed to happen for electronics and the integration of electronics and other systems: gantry, front panel, and software. I had people holding up Contour, cutting tape, cutting and stripping wires, making supports for the lights, holding wires in place while Isa or I soldered… the list goes on. The work went by faster with the team’s help, and directing it was kinda fun.

Erin and Isa were crucial at this stage. Software was at a standstill until our final gantry and lid were finished, so they were pushing to get everything integrated. Tony was vital to gantry construction and integration, and always brought a really good energy. Working together was so lovely; I could always think more clearly while talking to them. 

There was one moment where Erin, Isa, and Richard were helping me assemble the electronics and gantry —they were holding different parts together while I routed the wires— and it was very chaotic and lovely. “Ok move him down. Move him that way. No don’t crush the guy. Wait I moved the guy…” etc. Gage said it sounded like we were speaking another language. Anyway — I enjoy delegating tasks and being able to accomplish a greater vision because of other people’s contributions. 

orange acrylic window

our orange acrylic window…

It’s comforting to realize that I do enjoy computer science and electronics. Over the summer my project was entirely mechanical, and that was fun, and I can learn more about motors and stuff regardless. But I thought I legitimately didn’t like comp sci or electronics, and it turns out I do, although I still don’t like them quite as much as mechanical work. Which is frankly the perfect realization for me. My degree does work for me. 

I also want to learn more EE and CS now! And I have 1-2 electives left! However — I also really truly deeply want a stress-free artsy sane semester, and taking EE and CS classes would destroy that. So we’ll think about it. 

tony and heine assembling

assembly

 

I really do feel like I’m losing a dream. I felt this way a few times in EC when certain periods came to a close. It feels like something is being ripped away, something I didn’t even get to experience as fully or deeply as I could (even though right now, with 2.009, I did fucking experience it. I was stressed as fuck but I don’t think there was a way to experience it without being stressed as fuck. The stress must be part of the experience because without that adrenaline rush, you couldn’t make your body give so much). 

contour assembled!

assembled!

Sometimes I picture building this into something bigger. If we did, we would always reach for the original dream. Allow me I guess to imagine glory, a handful of us CEOs in our late 20s, and how everything would surface between us: so many stressful nights, debates over design and strategy, and lulls of relief when we’d won some grant or contract. We’d tell stories of the good old days. Even hustling for funds at 22 we wouldn’t be in the same fever dream as we were in Pappalardo. Whatever we did, nothing would be real compared to that. 

Maybe some of our young engineers would think our beginning sounded cool.

the stage

I want to capture the feeling before it fades. As you can tell it is already fading. 

gingerbread man

  1. pronounced 'two double-oh nine,' referred to among Course 2s as 'double-oh nine back to text
  2. course 6 = comp sci. I did take one MechE class on matlab back to text
  3. our orange acrylic window protects your eyes from the wavelengths of light that our laser emits back to text
  4. over Thanksgiving, Tony found a separate work-around using an arduino, but this was passed over in favor of a pi and stepper motor HAT back to text
  5. if this were to happen, our built-in fan would siphon the smoke away through a window vent... back to text
  6. axes on which the laser moves back to text
  7. since I was working mainly on electronics at this point I fortunately got to sleep. back to text
  8. this is more than usual lol, because I could not function at this level of productivity on less back to text
  9. AND the walk to lab was uphill BOTH WAYS back to text
  10. we were quite safe about this and checked everything with our knowledgeable EE professor and his big yellow box back to text
  11. I really do not know how many days. I think it will keep increasing the more times I tell this story. back to text