Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Winning in Education

In many ways, those of us who are active in the many current initiatives in improving engineering education are united on one particular idea: a curriculum over-dependent in conventional theory-based lecture format cannot provide a sufficiently rich enough experience to prepare today's students for tomorrow's engineering challenges. And in our efforts, we have posed numerous enrichments and alternatives. In recent years one of the most popular ways of injecting vitality into education has been the student competition. Students, either individually or as a team, compete to achieve a complex engineering task. Arguably some of the most exciting and effective among competitions are those that draw participants from multiple universities and even across international borders and then pit them against a really wicked problem. Some of the most prominent examples include the World Solar Challenge for cars with intercontinental range that run exclusively on solar power, and the US Department of Energy's Solar Decathalon to design a cheap, comfortable house that generates more power than it consumes.

Quanser has always been a proud supporters of such competitions. In terms of competition sponsorship, this year is turning out to be the most active ever in our company's history. We are mentoring and sponsoring our own FIRST Robotics team (Team 4001 RetroRams in case you are interested), we have established the Quanser Award in the University of Waterloo senior mechatronics project competition, and very recently, we, in collaboration of the Ibero-American Science and Technology Education Consortium (ISTEC) and the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development (SPEED), launched the Quanser Challenge. A global student competition that presents a real-world engineering challenge to students. For this year, the theme is the design of experimental devices for teaching sustainable engineering.

Tom Lee, Quanser's Cheif Education Officer, considers attempting the Quanser Student Design Challenge to design an experimental device for teaching sustainable engineering using a Quanser QNET trainer board for the National Instruments ELVIS.
Given some fairly constrained technical specifications on form, dimension, power available, and factoring in cost and ease of manufacture and commercialization potential, students will be attempting to develop innovative ideas for a new generation product that could potentially become a future Quanser product. Of course there is a prize.… a trip to Buenos Aires in October to attend and be celebrated at the annual World Engineering Education Forum (WEEF). But the real prize will be in the experience gained in unraveling a very complex engineering and business problem. The first obvious challenge is to define what "sustainable engineering" actually is! Yes everyone talks about it these days but there seems to be as many definitions of the term as there are people mentioning it. Then there will be human factors such as designing for engaging learning experiences. The business factors for global adoption must also be addressed. And after all of this, you still need to actually figure out the nuts and bolts - or the resistors and capacitors - of the design. A student team that actually manages to resolve all of these complex elements are winners in every sense of the word.

Who else wins? Well, we do. If this works, Quanser gets the inside track on a great new idea and we'll get to work with some very bright young people who have both the energy and audacity to propose wonderfully creative if not outrageous ideas.… so outrageous that it might actually work. When you are 49 years old, often floating haplessly on a vast sea of client emails, technical debates, Outlook reminders, management meetings, and the all too frequent calls on your mobile including "Dad.… I know you're in Markham, 120km away from home but I forgot my science project in the basement and the presentation is in 30 minutes", it's challenging to get your mind into that innovation zone. So getting the global community of bright young students to expend their mental energies seems so sensible to me. Heck, I'll go to Buenos Aires to shake the winning hand.

We're actually very excited about the prospects of the Quanser Challenge. It's one thing simply to hand over money as a sponsor for a worthy activity. But actually working directly with the competitors and having a real stake and philosophical interest in a event will be a winning experience for all of us at Quanser. In the end, we hope that this competition leaves another cohort of students with a sense of genuine achievement and satisfaction, and another profound memory of their time as students.
- Tom Lee
As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

1 comment:

distance learning said...

I think this is a great idea personally. Very often we neglect the younger minds because we think they are 'learning' and unable to contribute anything serious... how wrong we are! Sometimes they think around problems in ways we can't even imagine.