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+ By Thomas K. Grose
Designed to Win - from solar homes to eco-cars, Contests spark student engagement. - By Thomas K. Grose. Clockwise from top left: University of Maryland students with their human-powered helicopter; and working on a Solar Decathlon entry; Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo students race a concrete canoe to first place.

In the annals of flight, August’s brief hover of a human-powered helicopter named Gamera hardly rivals the X-1’s shattering of the sound barrier. Still, it marked a milestone for 50 University of Maryland engineering students who had spent three years designing, building, and ultimately flying the four-rotor chopper. Their ungainly, 103-foot, 100-pound creation of balsa wood, Mylar, and carbon fiber stayed aloft for a record 11.4 seconds, thanks to the furious pedaling and cranking of pilot Judy Wexler, a doctoral student in evolutionary biology. The feat captured headlines and imaginations even though it failed to meet the American Helicopter Society’s $250,000 Sikorsky Prize requirement of a full minute in the air.

Design competitions like the Sikorsky challenge are propelling scores of engineering students across the finish line these days, and not only in the aerospace field. Over the past 20 years, such contests — most of them sponsored by professional societies or federal agencies — have grown from an elite handful to become the hottest hands-on activities on campus. Hundreds of Maryland students, for instance, now regularly participate in 16 design competitions. Among them: building a race car for Formula SAE, installing an energy-efficient “green” house for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, and sketching a spacecraft for NASA’s RASC-AL competition.

The University of Maryland’s winning solar house.
The University of Maryland’s winning solar house.

Nor is Maryland unique. Engineering schools across the country have embraced student design contests as a way to provide workplace and teamwork-building experiences no classroom can deliver and motivate students to persist in a wide variety of disciplines. “Competitions are part of a movement within engineering education to go for more problem-based learning,” explains Christopher Lee, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Olin College who advised one of the winning teams in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Human Powered Vehicle Competition (HPVC). Engineering educators can choose among a host of contests, from the large-scale, long-term Formula SAE and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ National Concrete Canoe Competition to the smaller, shorter HPVC and Sailbot, a robotic sailboat race. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates that more than 60 contests offering nearly $250 million in prizes debuted between 2000 and 2007.

Test For New Technology

“It’s really easy to get (administrative) support for competitions,” says Purdue University mechanical engineering technology professor Bill Hutzel, who advised this year’s Solar Decathlon team. Indeed, the school plans to build a special multidisciplinary lab to support design contests. Darryll Pines, engineering dean at Maryland, is willing to green-light almost any competition. “They give kids a true real-world experience, and they’re fun,” he says.

Design contests often yield results far beyond the classroom, one reason the Obama administration encourages U.S. agencies to sponsor them. Case in point: DARPA’s Grand Challenge, won by Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, to build a robotic car that could autonomously navigate difficult terrain. “The Grand Challenge really accelerated development of technologies that otherwise wouldn’t have happened,” says Pines, who was at DARPA at the time and helped devise the event. Innovations that emerged are now used to navigate the Google autonomous car. Companies find that student design competitions can generate practical applications for technologies being developed in academic labs. “It’s a very good strategy for technology transfer,” says John Gilbert, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and longtime adviser to successful Concrete Canoe teams.

Professional engineering societies embrace contests as a means to draw the best students into the industries they serve, and also prepare them. “It’s pretty much a training exercise,” says Bob Sechler, director of educational relations for the Society of Automotive Engineers. Formula SAE, the biggest of his group’s nine events, has two U.S.-based races that attract teams from 200 universities.

Colleges benefit too, especially if they regularly turn out winning or high-placing teams. “Everyone wants bragging rights,” Pines admits. The prestige of competing in marquee events “helps tremendously with recruitment,” adds Alan Nye, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and adviser for many years to its successful Formula SAE teams.


Design Is Important

Of course, the main beneficiaries are students. “It is the best way to put to work all the things you learn in class, the theory,” maintains John Scanlon, a fifth-year mechanical engineering student at RIT who leads its Formula SAE team. Brandon Bush, who expects to earn his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at Maryland early next year, was comanager of the Gamera team. He notes that most students who gravitate to engineering like to build things, but the early years of college are dominated by math and science, not design. “Competitions for me were a way to bridge that gap,” he explains. David Munson, engineering dean at the University of Michigan, says contests offer a way to get even first-year engineering students designing. “A lot of engineering courses are essentially a big IQ test,” Munson says. “We still need theory courses; I value math theory and analysis. But design is really, really important.”

The University of Michigan team crosses the finish line to win the 2010 American Solar Challenge
The University of Michigan team crosses the finish line
to win the 2010 American Solar Challenge.

Design projects, for example, compel students to learn how to work as members of multidisciplinary teams, which is as real life as engineering gets. For some of the bigger contests, teams can run from 100 to 200 students and often pull in members from myriad disciplines, including business, psychology, agriculture, and marketing. The larger challenges force teams to run like small businesses, dealing with suppliers, subcontractors, and deadlines, and to conduct serious fundraising. Purdue’s Solar Decathlon team needed $150,000 to build its solar house, and the University of Michigan has built 10 solar cars over the past two decades for the World Solar Challenge, each costing between $1.5 million and $2 million. All of SAE’s competitions are about project management, says education director Sechler, because “you can’t succeed if you don’t successfully manage the product.” Such nontechnical, so-called soft or professional skills are important to employers. Maryland doctoral student Bush says that when he interviewed for his job as a combustion engineer at General Electric, most of the questions were about his Gamera experience. “They cared more about those soft skills than my research.”


Learning Through Failure

Competitions often expose students to the latest equipment and processes that industry will expect new hires to use. For example, most aerospace and automotive companies use model-based design, appropriate for systems and large projects rarely found in a college lab, notes electrical engineer Tom Gaudette, director of education at MathWorks, which sponsors 11 student competitions.

While their teams play to win, engineering educators count on missteps along the way that will compel students to rethink their approach to a problem — and discover that even also-rans gain academically. “Many times you learn more when you fail than when you succeed,” says RIT’s Nye. “That’s when real engineering takes place, and it can be very exciting.” His most recent SAE team was racing in Australia, for example, when a joint in the rear axle broke. The students managed to replace the part in 15 minutes — a job that normally took three to four hours.

“I was committed to the notion that this should be a student-led project — for better or worse,” says Douglas Smith, department chair of architectural and engineering computer-aided design at Austin Community College in Texas. As faculty adviser for a winning entry in Barkitecture, a citywide doghouse design contest, “I was willing to allow the students to struggle, or for the project to fail, because I thought that the students would learn something even in failure.”

The downside for undergraduates is that their grades can suffer if they spend too much time on their projects. “Some get almost addicted to it,” says Nye, “and you often don’t find out until it’s too late.” For grad students, a competition can force them to push research onto a back burner, which can annoy their professor-supervisors. “Your boss has no real interest in seeing the project through,” says Maryland’s Bush, who placed his own career on hold to pursue the helicopter challenge. “I could have graduated earlier,” he says, “but it was worth it. I didn’t just want to sit in my cubicle.”
Some schools are figuring out ways to give students credit for their projects. At Maryland, senior aerospace engineering members of the RASC-AL team can use their work in their capstone design class. Maryland also plans to give students credit for projects that last a year or more. Alabama’s Gilbert has designed a three-credit materials course for Concrete Canoe team members. And Michigan students earning a minor in multidisciplinary design can earn credit toward it from competition work. Schools like Purdue also have paid students a stipend for their efforts.

Educators are convinced that students who participate in competitions are learning skills that they couldn’t gain from lectures and textbooks, although there’s little data to back that up. “I know it’s good, but I can’t point you to any research. But (with competitions) we know we are doing important things,” says Munson, the Michigan dean. Advisers cited in a 2005 Journal of Engineering Education article “were unanimous that the contests are good learning experiences and that students learn more, but they learn different things than in their normal classes.” Author Phillip C. Wankat of Purdue University couldn’t supply a definitive answer on whether competitions lead to increased learning, however.

Still, many engineering schools are so convinced of the value of competitions that they’re creating their own. “I don’t know how much of a trend it is, but it’s a factor in retaining students,” says Paul Peercy, engineering dean at the University of Wisconsin, which now boasts six internal competitions, including three launched within the past five years. Maryland in recent years started a hovercraft competition for freshmen, and saw its retention rate jump from 74 percent to 90 percent. That seems compelling evidence that many engineering students are designed to compete.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.




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