June 30, 2012

A Challenge, a Concorde and a Mystical Magnetic Field - Part 4

That's me on the right with a terrible hairstyle.

It has been a while since the last post, and let me tell you, it has been an eventful while, not least the fact that I had my exams during that period, for which I started revising far too late, but enough with the formalities and lets conclude the epic tale of the Toyota Technology Challenge.

So, after our 8 hour “make it work” session, as described in part 3, we were on the way once again the next morning in our supervising teacher’s cramped mini-cooper to Derbyshire; a 2 hour drive from London. The systems engineer, the chief designer and myself, the team manager, were apprehensive of our chances, but at the same time, thinking through the various situations that could occur at the nationals.

On the way, we stopped at a service station, where my teacher and I devoured a hamburger, to the disgust of my team. Just thought I should include that for some reason.

We arrived and set up shop. Looking around, every other team there seemed to have prepared themselves very well! They had key chains, posters, display boards and even branded gifts for the other teams. Our table had our buggy, a sheet of plastic, repair kits, soldering irons and at least 3 laptops. We dubbed it the engineer’s table, but when I noticed a judge looking at the tables and making thorough notes, I quickly became nervous.
We strode into the presentation area, where we would give that final, and all-important, presentation to the judges. Having rewritten it and practiced it, we were quietly confident, although still scared out of our wits about whether somebody would screw up. Ironically, despite the fact that I told them to learn the script repeatedly, it was me who screwed up, but only to the extent of having to repeat one line, which I believe was forgivable!

So, that went very well, as did the judges Q&A. We returned to “the engineer’s table”, where we all sat around, occasionally dropping in on the activities Toyota had arranged for that day, such as the dexterity challenges that the manufacturing line employees have to do before they can work. Testing and refining the algorithms, however, was still a priority.

Time came for our practice run. Having scanned the course for dodgy magnetic fields, we concluded that our main algorithm, Mazebuster, would be unsuitable. Our only hope was the other 2 successful ones that had preformed well during our “make it work” session. Our time ran out far to quickly, and we plodded back with a sense of urgency towards fixing the algorithms.

We hurriedly worked on them before our qualifying run. When we were called down, we were all apprehensive of our buggies success; however, our teacher was still enjoying himself, chuckling, possibly at us (as he likes to do) or at the general situation.

On the course, we could only stand and look on at the fruit of our two term-long labour. Attempt 1 saw the buggy navigate the course relatively well, until the micro-switch (ie. Bumper switch) jammed half way through, sending the buggy into a kind of reverse-dancing frenzy. With attempt 2, we changed out the algorithm and watched as it jammed itself into a corner. Attempt 3 saw no variation.

It was a shame, but we were only slightly disheartened. We all had a good laugh at my teacher on the mechanical bucking bronco! At the prize giving, we were not expecting to come in the top three; however, one of the judges approached us later and highly commended us for the effort we had put into the project. I mean, we rebuilt the entire thing in 27 days!

All in all, we had a great day and one we shall never forget.

Now, you may think this is the end. Oh no. How wrong you are.

The school, following the nationals, wanted us to give one of the four presentations at the junior prize giving, which is apparently a big honour in my school. Unaware of yet another looming deadline, we only started scripting it a week before the event! We had pushed things close before, but not this close! To add to the stress, the chief designer, who was responsible for our other two great presentations, was busy with stage-managing a school play. He wrote an initial draft, but we had to make major alterations following an initial rehearsal, which I proudly did, despite the fact that I am a terrible public speaker.

Following frantic rehearsals and many last-minute changes, the night came. Both the chief designer and myself had won a prize: a science prize and physics prize respectively. To both my teammates, it was a mystery as to why I was receiving a physics prize: I had managed to make a name for myself through my physics concepts, dubbed “Nick physics”.

Anyway, we were the last presentation. Having seen the other presentations, an Italian-spoken one, a sound design one and a geography one, I was nervous as to how ours would be recieved.

We walked onto the stage and I bellowed out the first line. We quickly got into the swing of things and relaxed ourselves as we realised that it was not that scary after all! What was interesting to see was the audience laughing at jokes we did not even intend to be jokes: the coding of the “30-minute algorithm”, or how no other buggy managed to navigate the course at the regionals.

Several people came up to me and told me how we had managed to convey the difficulties behind the challenge without getting to technical and still maintaining a certain level of amusement. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic challenge.

So, where has this whole experience left me? Well, I now know in what direction I might be looking at in future career opportunities, but alongside that, we have all learned many, many new skills along the way; not only within the workshop, but also in the management of a team, the compiling of a 30-page long document, how to create a presentation in less than a week and knowing what it feels like to have an obsessive devotion to doing the thing you love. The supervising teacher, as I was handing over the buggy to the school and thanking him for dealing with our annoying nature, told me how the Systems and Control department rarely had a group like us so devoted to an extracurricular activity.

The year ended on a high, and now we are off into the summer break with no pressing deadlines or stressful tasks to complete; however, my team and I will be preparing for the next challenges in the coming year: not least our GCSEs, but also the Solar Toyota Technology Challenge and the Micromouse challenge. These things get addictive after a while!

So, with that, I wish you all a happy and probably well-deserved summer break, and the younger year doing the TTC next year much luck! For the rest of you, I hope this series was not too boring and that you managed to glean something from it.

Until next time.