Each semester at Stevens we physics majors are required to work on a so-called “SKIL” project. For this project there is no assigned project, instead we students select a project we feel is both educational and possible to make some headway on during the course of a semester. Last semester on the first day of class we all sat down and discussed our project ideas – everyone was to present one or more ideas, and we were going to argue the relative merits of them and select 3 or 4 viable ideas and choose teams to work on them. I entered the room that morning with a few ideas in my head, amoung them a low-cost usb-powered EEG, improvements to the RepRap project, and something else I have since forgotten. But, during the class I remembered a cool project I had seen on the internet a while back which involved using an actively regulated electromagnet to suspend small metal objects in mid-air. The project had the aesthetic appeal of a good SKIL project, but it lacked the nessisary complexity and origionality. So, I doodled a little imaginative doodle involving a horizontal array of coils suspending and moving the metalic object beneith them, with the ability to control not only the vertical but also the horizontal position of that object. The idea was a hit, and we formed a team of 6. Six may sound like a small number, but this was half of the physics majors in my graduating class, all working on one project. The team size was unpresidented and presented a real organizational challenge. Nevertheless we stuck with the project and now, looking back, I am quite pleased that we did.
The first step was to do some brainstorming. I apt-got myself a copy of FreeMind and made the following mind-map (click for enlargement):
After the brainstorming we starting attacking the project from many angles at the same time. This worked for several reasons: 1) the project split into fairly independant sub-projects, 2) we had 6 people, 3) we talked as a group breifly before each lab and decided on a plan of action for that week and a tentative plan for the following week, but after 20min or so we split into at least 2 independant sub-teams and most importantly in my opinion 4) what we learned in persuing one end was applicable towards another – since we were designing and constructing simultaneously, we were able to figure out what was and wasn’t going to work in reality even while drawing up a plan. In the end we spent approximately 500 man hours on the project (6 people * 4-hour weekly lab * 15 weeks + some people became sort of obsessed and moonlighted many a long night = ~500 hrs).
Here’s a photograph of the device in action: