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The Chinese had a crude kind of computer in mind when they invented the abacus some 5,000 years ago, but a University of Utah engineering design class is putting its version of the world's oldest known "calculator" to a different use.

An "automated abacus," the brainchild of Professor Don R. Brown, is the centerpiece in a contest he has designed to teach students about the kind of challenges they'll face as professional engineers.The abacus is an ancient device for performing calculations by sliding bead counters along a set of rods or grooves. The instrument is still widely used in China, the Soviet Union and Japan. In the hands of a skilled operator, it provides quick solutions to problems of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

More than 40 U. seniors in mechanical engineering enter the design contest he plans, the wrap-up to Mechanical Engineering 383, a required four-hour credit course.

Brown's "playing field" is a large abacus-like structure made of five parallel steel rods strung with beads and fastened to wooden racks. The student who builds the device that transfers the most beads from one end of the abacus to the other will be declared the winner. The contestants have the use of electricity for only 60 seconds to accomplish the task.

The students are limited to using a joystick manual control instrument to maneuver their bead-collecting concoctions, says Brown, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The participants can't touch or tilt the abacus in any way.

"This is an excellent learning experience for engineering students," says Brown, an innovator who organized two similar contests in past years. In 1990, Brown's students held a much-publicized motorized mini-hockey contest.

"The contests place students in the environment of attempting to solve engineering design and construction problems under the constraints of time. In industry, constraints are an everyday challenge for engineers - budgetary constraints, physical constraints and space constraints. This is an exercise to help students understand the reality of handling those kinds of problems."

At the outset, students were given a kit full of materials, including small motors, metal, fasteners, rubber bands, string and various other building materials.

The students are limited only by their imaginations as to what they can create in an effort to win, says Brown. Some students plan to use scissorlike mechanisms designed to spring out, attach themselves to the beads and pull them back. Others plan to shoot projectiles designed to wrap around the beads in finger-like fashion and retrieve them.

A student's grade doesn't depend on how well he or she does in the contest. "I don't grade on that basis because luck can sometimes play a major role in the outcome of these kinds of events. Instead I grade on how well the students learn the design process," notes Brown.

Students began the academic quarter by thinking of possible design ideas. Then they analyzed their most promising concepts, after which they actually started building their devices. The work was done in the student manufacturing laboratory in the College of Engineering.

In Brown's view, engineering students can learn best by actually designing instruments and devices, even while having fun in the process. These initial experiences as innovators often provide some of the best learning opportunities for young, fertile minds.