A mentor's perspective: Project-based learning and student competitions
“How do you get a job without experience, but experience without a job?”
I remember this being pondered by a wise, old guru sitting on a mountaintop in a TV commercial during my early teens. The answer to this, I now know, is project-based learning and industry-sponsored student competitions.
As an alumni of a student competition myself (Formula SAE), I have experienced first hand the great learning opportunity such venues provide students to apply what they have learned in the classroom, and have fun (and a fair share of pain) doing it. In addition, this hands-on learning brings greater understanding and gratification of the knowledge acquired in coursework. In addition, a team competition such as EcoCAR2, teaches aspects of engineering that has nothing to do with technology. Such non-technical skills include working and communicating in a team setting, project management, marketing, and cost control, all extremely important once the student joins the “real world.”
For faculty, student competitions offer valuable communication with professionals in industry, and allow them to keep in touch with the latest processes and tools used in production scenarios. This in turn helps in designing teaching curricula that are relevant to today.
Industry sponsors also gain great benefits in contributing to student competitions. Not only will it offer a chance to apply their products in a fast-paced, competitive environment, but it also provides an opportunity to introduce future engineers to their products to give them a head start on their career.
The advances of technology, including that of development tools such as MATLAB & Simulink, make it increasingly more important to teach students not only how to use the technology, but to understand the theory behind it, and understand the tradeoffs a certain piece of technology presents in order to make sound design and process decisions.
As a mentor, I try to concentrate on teaching this thought process: what needs to be accomplished, and how am I going to accomplish it within the given cost and time constraints? At the Year One event this past May, I had a chance to sit down with the team leaders from the University of Washington and their faculty advisor Dr. Fabien to teach them about tackling modular design with different modeling semantics available in Simulink. Our modeling tool offers many options to encapsulate functionality, so I introduced a select few options I have personally used in the automotive industry, and explained the pros and cons of each instead of going over the options like on a daily specials menu. I then asked the team questions like “how do you want to test these functions,” or “how many people will be editing these functions.” I was not looking for a “right answer” because there is none, but rather an optimal choice given the constraints of the competition. I hoped that for every design decision the students make, they would ask such questions, and answer them using engineering design principles they have learned in class, and apply the appropriate features available in the tools they were given.
From many respects, the EcoCAR2 student competition provides an excellent opportunity for students to work in an engineering team environment with guidance from faculty and mentors on advanced hybrid vehicle technology with the latest computer design tools. An emphasis on the process as well as technology prepares future engineers ahead of their class. You don’t need a guru to figure out that this is a unique opportunity to gain invaluable experience to help launch your career.