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Competitions turn theory into practice, yielding benefits for students, faculty and industry.

Each year, recruiters from the automotive, aerospace, communications, industrial equipment, and other industries seek out university graduates with the theoretical understanding and practical skills required to help their firms compete globally. New graduates will enter a challenging environment, as engineering companies face demands for shorter development times, increasingly complex and heterogeneous hardware/software systems, and more efficient cost management throughout design, implementation, and verification. What does industry need from its new recruits? More specifically, is there a model for collaboration that can help more students develop the skills and passion for engineering that will be needed to solve today’s engineering problems?

At The MathWorks, we believe student competitions provide a unique opportunity for industry and academic institutions to collaborate in encouraging engineering students to bridge the gap between theory and practice while addressing industry-specific needs. That’s why we are an enthusiastic sponsor of these events, helping to train participants and donating the necessary software tools. In the SDR Forum Smart Radio Challenge, student teams tackle problems with Software Defined Radio, including establishing a communications link in areas with damaged infrastructure. For the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, students apply advanced genetic components and technologies to design and build simple biological systems. European engineering students in the Formula Student challenge design and develop cars while learning about manufacturing and the demands of business for cost-effectiveness, maintainability, and reliability. In the United States, students participating in the EcoCAR challenge develop automotive technologies that reduce fuel consumption and emissions while maintaining vehicle performance.

Students, educators and companies all reap rewards from these competitions. Students get the chance to apply the principles and theory they have learned to real-world, practical problems. In doing so, they learn how to work collaboratively on a team of individuals with different skills, deliver a public presentation, meet a deadline and cope with limited resources.

As they tackle problems that industry leaders are themselves facing, students engage in a trial run as engineers and gain insights into what a future in the field would be like. Students often cite participation in a competition on their résumés and describe, during job interviews, the challenges it presented.

We must instill in future engineers the passion needed to tackle challenges head on and to persevere.

For faculty, student competitions are an opportunity to work closely with industry leaders and gain a better understanding of what skills graduates need to succeed in the workplace. With this understanding, instructors can create more career-relevant curricula and coursework. Companies that support these challenges offer educators a wealth of resources, including ready-made teaching examples as well as access to, and training for, state-of-the-art engineering tools. The competitions also provide something sought by many educators — an unparalleled source of motivation for students.

Industry, of course, also benefits from these competitions. Companies that sponsor these challenges are able to recruit from an enthusiastic pool of engineering graduates with hands-on experience and enhanced skills and knowledge. By mentoring and training contestants, makers of engineering tools can cultivate longtime champions of their products.

Compared with the classic student-teacher model of instruction, competitions foster stronger, longer-lasting relationships among students and provide a more vibrant social setting that makes engineering a part of their lives. Years later, students will remember the travel, working on projects at all hours in tandem with teammates across the globe, the bragging rights and the camaraderie.

If we want the next generation of engineers to help solve society’s most critical problems, we have to instill in today’s students the passion needed to tackle challenges head on and to persevere until solutions are found. Industry and academia can contribute by working together to initiate more competitions.

Liz Callanan is corporate relations manager for The MathWorks, which develops technical computing and design software for engineers and scientists in industry, government and education.




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