The traditional ways to celebrate Halloween will be the next victim of the global pandemic, COVID-19.

Millions of children across the country will miss out on the opportunity to put on their costumes and go door-to-door to trick-or-treat. There will be no Halloween parties to attend.

Facing that dilemma, a freshman class in Western Carolina University’s College of Engineering and Technology was charged with the task of designing and developing a Halloween-themed Touchless Candy Dispenser.

Students in the class’s three sessions, taught by professor Hugh Jack, the Cass Ballenger Distinguished Professor and director of the School of Engineering and Technology, associate  professor Yanjun Yan and instructor Jim Coffin, were placed into groups of three and given three weeks to complete their project.

Frankenstein robot candy dispenser

“They had to come up with the basic design, do all of the design work and programming,” Jack said. “At the end of the day, they also will produce budgets, log the tasks they’ve done, and other steps that are introductory to the industrial design and build phase. The results they came up with, we’re really proud of. They’ve used a few of the technologies like 3D printing, and electronics with the Arduino boards, and sensors, and actuators to make these things work.”

In all, the students produced 26 candy dispensers, each with a unique Halloween theme, from pumpkins, to skulls, to big scary mouths that require kids to place their hands inside to receive candy. Each dispenser was automated and used sensors to be activated.

“Kids can wave their hand in front of the sensors and they should get some candy,” Jack said. “It’s kind of a great experience, getting the students started with the whole design-and-build philosophy at the school.”

But what good are candy dispensers without kids to enjoy them? A call was put out to department administrative assistants with small children, as well as a local FIRST LEGO league group, to try them out. The kids were encouraged to wear their costumes.

Seven groups visited the classroom displays, one group at a time, for a 10-minute tour with children receiving candy from each working dispenser. At the end, they voted for their favorite dispenser, which was the black box with a toothy entrance. To help maintain a safe, physically distanced environment, students were not present for the tours.

“This year, Halloween is not going to be as much fun as usual,” Jack said. “So, this lets us do a little bit to bring normalcy. It’s definitely fun watching their reactions.”

View more images of the treat dispensers.