CORVALLIS - A team of three Oregon State University engineering students, all of whom describe themselves as "lousy" baseball players, won first place and $3,000 last week at an international design competition that required participants to conceptualize, design and build a machine that could throw up to 30 baseballs through three different 8-inch target holes in less than two minutes.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) sponsors the competition and creates a different design challenge for student teams each year. This year's challenge was based on a hypothetical sporting goods manufacturer's request for a device that could determine defective baseballs by analyzing their flight paths, with good balls landing within a specified target area.

The OSU team's machine successfully tossed 23 of 30 balls through the target holes to win the competition that drew teams from as far away as Mexico and India. Not bad for students who claim they were all thumbs when it came to playing baseball as kids.

"In Little League, I had to stop pitching because I was beaning too many batters," said team member Darren Johnson, a senior in mechanical engineering from LaPine. "And I only made it to T-ball," added Kalan Guiley, a senior in mechanical engineering from Corvallis. "I had a nasty tendency to always hit the plastic T instead of the ball."

Brian Gin, a senior in mechanical engineering from Beaverton, says he only played first base. "Because on first, I didn't have to move around very much."

"I think we'll definitely leave it up to a machine instead of our athletic ability when it comes to throwing baseballs," Johnson said.

But all three agree that they learned an "incredible amount" from the yearlong experience that started last fall in a hands-on product development class, which is rooted in the ASME challenge.

OSU associate professor of mechanical engineering Bob Paasch, who co-teaches the class with assistant professor Christine Ge, says the OSU College of Engineering is the only engineering school in the nation he knows of that builds an entire course around the ASME design challenge.

"Right now we have 115 new students down in the lab working on the next ASME challenge," Paasch said. "We like to think we're the leaders."

The fact the OSU team walked away from the New Orleans event with top honors this year suggests Paasch might be right.

He says the hands-on nature of the class gives students a good taste for the multiple challenges they'll face as engineers when they enter the job market.

"In this class, students not only have to design something on paper, they have to build it," Paasch says. "They get more and better feedback from this project than we professors could ever give them, because they have to figure out how it's all going to come together."

And that process, although frustrating at times, makes for a good learning experience, the team members agree.

"Sometimes frustration can be a very good teacher," says Johnson, with a grin.

The strict rules of the competition definitely added to the frustration factor.

The complete device, excluding the 30 baseballs, had to fit within a rigid 30x50x30-centimeter storage box before assembly. The device had to be assembled in less than 30 minutes, could not exceed one cubic meter in dimensions, and had to be started with a single switch.

Once the system was running, team members couldn't touch it.

"We just had to stand back and pray," said Guiley, who is also studying pre-med and philosophy, and plans to become a pediatric oncologist.

The OSU trio was one of very few teams that relied on pure mechanical engineering to operate their device, instead of circuit boards and other electronics, many of which were damaged in transit to New Orleans.

Both Gin and Johnson say their design was also aided by participation in the Multiple Engineering Co-op Program at OSU and placement in six-month internships at Credence Systems of Hillsboro and Warn Industries of Clackamas.

But what about those seven balls that missed the targets? The OSU team says there is a simple explanation.

Those balls were defective, of course.

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Bob Paasch, 541-737-7019