Students racing rubber band–powered cars

Students race rubber band–powered cars during Creative Machines and Innovative Instrumentation, a new College course offered during the 2022 Autumn Quarter. (Photography by Nancy Wong)

Go go gadget

College students learn to design and build their own scientific instruments.

The ability to fashion custom contraptions is an essential part of any applied scientist’s tool kit. This fall 16 UChicago students got to sharpen that skill in Creative Machines and Innovative Instrumentation, a first-of-its-kind College course that faculty members in physics and astronomy had been planning for years. “Making an instrument is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating at times, and this gives students a way to experience both firsthand,” coteacher Scott Wakely, AB’93, a professor of physics, told UChicago News.

Lectures covered the basics of topics including computer-aided design, programming, prototyping, and circuitry; laboratory sessions let students unleash what they’d learned. During the first week of the quarter, they designed, 3D-printed, and raced rubber band–powered cars (shown above)—then souped them up, adding motors and sensors that allowed the vehicles to avoid walls and other obstacles. For their final project, students had to design and fabricate their own scientific instruments. Many enrollees found Creative Machines a welcome departure from the norm: “In a lot of other UChicago courses, you’re learning theory,” second-year Todd Tan told UChicago News, “but then in this class, we make it real.”