A year ago, I was an excited prefrosh savoring the sweet scent of orange blossoms as I explored Caltech’s campus with my family. We’d come during finals week, so most classrooms were empty and hallways were quiet. However, outside, we ran across a professor and group of students testing small boats. The boats floated on plastic bottles, with Styrofoam cups and a rainbow of wires heaped on top. We watched them whiz around on the water for a bit. The demonstration made me think that Caltech’s coursework couldn’t be “too theoretical” after all. In a few days, I was back home, and a month later, I decided to make Caltech my future home. Then, this past term, I took that class.
But it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. EE/ME 7, or Introduction to Mechatronics, is notorious for being a time sink. Upperclassmen warn frosh to avoid it. The TQFRs, or Teaching Quality Feedback Reports, say past students spent an average of nine hours on homework a week, twice the expectation for a class with its unit rating.
I worried about this when deciding whether to take the course. However, after reading this line from the course description, I was sold: “Topics covered include motors, piezoelectric devices, light sensors, ultrasonic transducers, and navigational sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes.” In high school, I did robotics (FTC, if you’re familiar with the FIRST robotics program). We used these devices—light sensors, ultrasonic sensors, and gyroscopes—to make the robot perform tasks like following a line. However, I never had a clue how the sensors worked. They were mysterious black boxes that enabled the robot to do really cool things. The offer to be taught their magic was tantalizing.
Mechatronics, as I learned on the first day of class, lies in the intersection between electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science—hence the cross-listing in EE and MechE. It’s a lab course, and we had two of them each week, including
Putting together a little motor.
Lighting up an LED through a relay, which is a type of switch. It’s the green-tinted box with a coil of copper wire inside.
Building a brushless motor controlled by a magnetic sensor.
Designing and assembling a toy car with the proper gear ratio and PWM* circuit to make it move at a desired speed. Sorry, apparently I was lazy for this lab and didn’t take a photo :(
Wiring a circuit to use PWM to control the position of a servo motor based on detected light.
Our final was to build a boat that would follow an ultrasonic beacon using two fans at the back of the boat. After working all morning on our boats, the class walked over to a little pool and replicated the scene I’d witnessed as a prefrosh, the perfect bookend to a great class.
P.S. For any interested prefrosh—who aren’t technically freshmen until the cannon fires—Introduction to Mechatronics (EE/ME 7) is being offered this upcoming fall!
PWM = Pulse Width Modulation. To control the speed of a motor, it’s relatively hard to directly scale the power sent to it. It’s easier to just use two levels of power—none and full—and switch between them so fast that nobody can tell that you’re using black and white, not gray. The relative durations of these two alternating states determines the speed.
With 45 Nobel Laureates on its Faculty Roster, it’s not surprising that research is an integral part of the Caltech undergraduate experience. One of the programs that promotes such research is the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). There is no minimum knowledge or experience required to participate in a Caltech SURF. In fact, students can participate in a SURF as soon as the summer after their freshman year. It is not difficult to get a SURF. All you need to do is find a mentor who is working in an area of research that interests you and willing to mentor you through a research project. The mentor can work in a Caltech lab, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), or at another participating institution. Once you find a mentor, you work together to write a project proposal that you later send to the SURF office for review and approval. About 98% of the SURF proposals get approved. This fellowship is a great way to explore various fields of research and obtain real, hands-on experience where you get to apply the theoretical knowledge you’ve learned in class. Not only do you get to work and learn alongside your mentor, but you also get compensated for your time. The length of the SURF is ten weeks, and it starts at the beginning of the summer. However, it is not uncommon for many students at Caltech to continue their research project throughout the academic school year.
Like many students at Caltech, I suffer from a slight boba addiction, where side effects may include over caffeination, minor sugar highs, and of course, a large toll on one’s wallet. This addiction is not helped by the fact that there are at least three boba shops within walking distance of campus. So, after an entire term’s worth of boba runs, I came back from winter break with a new year’s epiphany: it was time to get a job. Rather than try to curb my addiction, I decided to find a way to subsidize it.
Research at Caltech looks different for every student, and can often vary term by term. As a chemistry major, my course requirements are on the lighter side for a Caltech major, and many chemistry majors take advantage of the lighter course load to join research groups. This can be whenever the student wants, but many people join labs during their freshman or sophomore years. Some may work in one lab only, and some may switch between labs during the course of their undergraduate studies, depending on if their interests change.
SURF, short for Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, is a quintessential experience for any Caltech student. It is a widely accessible research fellowship for Caltech students that funds your proposed research for one summer term. While many of my classmates did their first SURF the summer after their freshman year, I sent in my first application to the program as a sophomore. As a CS major, I was trying to chase meaningful work that intersected computation with the field of neuroscience. I ended up doing a SURF at the Stanford School of Medicine that first year, studying hand gestures in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Since then, I’ve been working in the research space of applying computational analyses to ASD.