The People Behind Your Electronic Toothbrush iPhones, electric toothbrushes, antilock brakes — all of these are products of mechatronics, a growing field which combines physics, computer science and mechanical engineering. We meet students training in this difficult discipline, as they play with robotic mice.

The People Behind Your Electronic Toothbrush

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Back now with Day to Day. If you've got an iPhone or a GPS system in your car, heck, if you've got a microwave oven, you are benefiting from mechatronics. This field combines all the courses I didn't take in college, physics, computer science, mechanical and electrical engineering.


It's like ultimate fighting, but science. At the University of Virginia, kids actually compete for a spot in the advanced mechatronics course. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman tells us why this subject is so hot.

SANDY HAUSMAN: Unless you spend time reading Popular Mechanics, you may not know that times have changed for the world's mechanical engineers. They used to be all about hardware.

Dr. PARTHIV SHETH (University of Virginia School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering): Cams, gears, bells, chains, that type of stuff.

HAUSMAN: That's Dr. Parthiv Sheth, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Today, he says the field is also about things that make our machines better and smarter. Take anti-lock brakes for example, they are actually part of a complex system in which sensors interact with the wheels of a car and road conditions. They communicate to a micro controller which processes the information and operates the hydraulic lines that activate the brake pads.

Dr. SHETH: And somebody has to learn how to integrate all of these different disciplines into one well-functioning system.

HAUSMAN: Doing that isn't easy and even bright students who love certain technical fields might find this combination daunting. So, how do you attract college students to the cause? That's what graduate student Gavin Garner wondered as he plan the advanced course he would teach to 16 seniors during their last semester before graduation.

Mr. GAVIN GARNER (Graduate Student, University of Virginia): I realized that I couldn't motivate them with simply threatening to give them bad grades because they all had high-paying jobs lined up or had gotten to higher graduate schools.

HAUSMAN: Garner knew many of the guys played "Guitar Hero," a video game that allowed them to become virtual rock stars, and that led him to a eureka moment. He would allow each student in the class of 16 to design and build an electric guitar. The project was a huge hit. Recent graduate William Smith gladly spent long hours in the mechatronics lab.

Mr. WILLIAM SMITH (Graduate, University of Virginia): Well, we have to come in on our time at night or on the weekends and that wasn't an issue for us. In fact, a lot of us wanted to come in to make a second guitar and Gavin sort of had to limit us to one.

HAUSMAN: The instruments fashioned from ordinary lumber looked pretty good. But to make them sound good, Garner says, the kids had to learn and apply what they knew about computer programming and electronics.

Mr. GARNER: We tricked them into learning all the analog circuitry and applying all the circuits. So, they've spent the first two weeks of the semester learning, so they had to apply all these filters and effects to make the guitar sound like they wanted them to.

(Soundbite of a guitar)

HAUSMAN: And for those who are less musically inclined, Garner and Sheth issued a second challenge, asking students to create robotic rodents who could find chunks of cheese that emitted infrared light. They called each mechatronic creature Mickey Mouse.

Mr. GARNER: This mouse plays AC/DC "Hells Bells" to intimidate its rivals as it's searching for cheese.

HAUSMAN: And another student creation was programmed to do a victory dance when it actually found the cheese. So, this course was fun, and the future for its students could prove very profitable. Gavin Garner says the big cheese in industrial circles, the real rock stars of America's manufacturing companies, will be the guys who have mastered mechatronics.

Mr. GARNER: Because out in the industry, they're going to wind up on teams given the task of creating a mechatronic system. It could be designing a new type of car, a hybrid car. But somebody is going to have to be the orchestrator of that team. Somebody has to be the leader that understands that it all fits together.

HAUSMAN: And Garner is making a name for himself in this field writing his PhD thesis on how to teach mechatronics. For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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