Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.


TEACHING: COMPETE TO LEARN - Even losers have much to gain from the Solar Decathlon.

Every two years – most recently last month – a score of dream green homes crops up seemingly overnight on the National Mall in Washington, drawing huge crowds. That’s not surprising. They look great and employ cutting-edge technologies that keep them emissions free, able to produce as much, or more, renewable energy than they use. More amazingly, these wonder homes are designed and built by 20 collegiate teams from the United States, Canada, and Europe. Welcome to the Solar Decathlon, a competition of 10 separate events, including engineering, architecture, comfort, and lighting. The biennial event was created by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002 to promote and speed to market green-building technologies and designs. But for many engineering educators and their students, it represents something of even greater value: an incomparable educational experience that can’t be duplicated in any classroom.

This year, a German team led by students from Technische Universität Darmstadt took top overall honors. Second place went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and third to a partnership of Santa Clara University and the California College of the Arts. Yet professors who have advised decathlon teams say that no matter where a team ends up in the final rankings, the competition offers a fantastic way for students to combine inspiration with perspiration and to put into practice their classroom-acquired know-how. The best lesson comes from learning how to work in highly cross-disciplinary teams, a very different experience from the typically insular culture of most engineering departments.

TEACHING - 3D bird sketch

Winning Isn’t Everything

“A little too much is made of the winning experience. The learning experience is much more important,” says Zellman Warhaft, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Cornell University, who was faculty adviser to both Cornell’s second-place team in 2005 and this year’s team, which finished seventh. Martin Zeumer, an assistant professor of architecture at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, agrees. Schools, he says, should enter the contest “only if educating the students is their main concern.” Paxton Marshall, an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Virginia, and an adviser to UVa’s second-place 2002 team, calls it a ”real-world experience” that encompasses all of ABET’s outcomes criteria. “The Solar Decathlon gives students the opportunity to integrate all of those aspects in a single experience, and they’re building something real.”

Consider what a team has to accomplish. First steps involve drafting a proposal strong enough to garner an invitation to join – an honor awarded to a mere 20 schools each year. Then, within 24 months, team members must work together to design and construct a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient house, ship it to Washington, and reassemble it on the Mall. To accomplish all that, the decathletes need to raise six-figure sums in cash and in-kind donations, learn to stay on budget, and deal with suppliers and contractors. They also have to devise strategies for the competition itself, such as determining optimal times to turn on the dishwashers or clothes dryers located within their houses.

Typically, some 200 students get involved with a team’s project. But the effort usually boils down to a core group of 20 to 50 students – often engineering and architecture majors. For a project this vast and complex, “passion is everything; it’s critical,” says Kaye Brubaker, a University of Maryland civil engineer who advised her school’s team in 2005 and 2007. And, adds UMD architecture associate professor Amy E. Gardner, passion was never in short supply: “They breathed, ate, slept – and didn’t sleep – solar power for two years.”

Of course, not everything takes place on drawing boards and at building sites. Brubaker created four math- and science-heavy elective courses for her decathlon engineering students. Some schools instead modify existing courses to accommodate them, particularly senior capstone design. The decathlon can also bring out the best in students who do better with hands-on projects than with tests or homework assignments. “It lets them shine,” says Ty Newell, an emeritus professor of mechanical science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and adviser to the school’s 2007 team.

But the biggest payoff, everyone agrees, is getting students to work in interdisciplinary teams – just as they’ll have to do once they move from campus to career. “A weakness of engineering education,” says Marshall, “is it is too focused on single disciplines – they don’t even know how to work with other engineers.” By contrast, the decathlon’s cross-disciplinary requirements extend far beyond the halls of engineering schools. Students have to work with those majoring in architecture, business, environmental science, public policy – even graphic design. And after some initial headbutting, it works. “In no other class,” Brubaker says, “have I had so many ‘aha!’ moments.”

Failure’s Instruction

DOE has suggested that schools use or modify off-the-shelf technologies. “But there is room for research and innovation,” says Newell, whose Illinois students designed and built from scratch a heating and cooling system that won the 2007 “comfort” event. They also devised an innovative water heater that broke down when a 5-cent part failed. The New York Institute of Technology’s 2002 house lost points because it didn’t efficiently capture and retain heat. “We certainly then realized the importance of weatherization and insulation,” says David Shieren, who as a master’s student was a core member of that team. This year, Cornell’s creative use of three 16-foot-diameter silos fell flat: Judges were unimpressed with the unusual configuration, ranking it a disappointing 16th out of 20 houses in the architecture category. Plus, the cylindrical shape limited use of large solar panels – a distinct disadvantage during the rainy competition weekend, when every volt of generated energy was needed. But in engineering, failure is a much-respected teaching tool. Teams return to campus debating those failures and strategies for the future. Moreover, Marshall says, some of the decathlon’s most innovative teams chalk up low scores because they’ve designed complex systems that are not fully tested, so are prone to failure.

If just a relative few universities ever get the chance to compete in the DOE’s decathlon, engineering schools can mount projects that offer similar educational benefits. Virginia – which no longer competes in the decathlon – has established an ongoing relationship with Habitat for Humanity to build energy-efficient yet affordable housing for the poor. Since 2002, its engineering and architecture students have completed six houses. “Doing it this way,” Marshall says, “is even more real-world. People will actually live in these houses, so they have to do it right.” And, obviously, that’s an education in itself.

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




© Copyright 2009
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500