Tuesday, April 24, 2012

4001: A Robotic Odyssey

I and others have written several times in the past about the FIRST Robotics competition. Through a highly charged and professionally produced competitive framework, teams of high school students from a growing number of countries converge in regional tournaments to demonstrate their engineering excellence.

Although Quanser has supported competitions in the past, this was the first year that we sponsored and mentored our own team. That team was 4001 (the official team identification number designated by the FIRST organization), also known as the Retro Rams, also known as St. Robert High School of Thornhill, Ontario. I’m happy to report that the team far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and we’re all still catching our breaths.
Members of Team 4001 follow their robot as it takes on all challengers.
On March 30th and 31st, our Rams competed in the Greater Toronto West Regional tournament. This year 52 teams from around Canada, the US, and Mexico competed in one of the largest regional tournaments in the FIRST roster. The Rams are classified as a “rookie” team indicating that this was there first year of competition. Spoiler alert: they won.

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The concept of winning has multiple meanings within the FIRST context and the Rams won in all senses.

They won the Rookie All Star Award.
A select team of engineering community leaders are recruited as expert judges to identify teams of exceptional and exemplary character and embodiment of what FIRST refers to as “Gracious Professionalism” – the notion that engineering excellence encompasses technical achievement and true leadership within the community and in their interaction with other teams. The Rookie All Star Award is the most prestigious award for first year teams and celebrates the team’s success in bringing students, teachers, community, and industry together to learn about engineering and to succeed in engineering.

They won on the field.
FIRST is unique in that the field competition always involves alliances of three separate teams. In the initial qualifying rounds, the alliances are selected at random. In the playoffs, the top 8 teams (based on a fairly sophisticated points scheme) hand pick their desired alliance partners for the playoff rounds. Among the top 8 were one of the best teams anywhere, 2056, OP Robotics of Governor Simcoe High School in St. Catharines, Ontario and they selected the Rams as their first choice as a playoff alliance partner. A rookie team being chosen first is very rare and to be chosen by a perennial powerhouse team is even rarer.

A spectacular Triple Balance, brought to you by Team 4001, the St. Robert High School
Retro Rams. To catch more of the action, click here.
The design was exceptional.
Design is a wonderfully ethereal concept celebrated by the engineering profession and encompasses far more than the fanciest machine. Design is the discipline of making intelligent choices to optimally achieve key functional goals and sometimes the best designs are the most focused and simple. Most rookie teams bolt every last thing on their robot in a desperate attempt to do as much as possible. The Rams focused at being small and robust, maximizing their chance to be chosen by a senior team. This year, there was a unique element in the game that required robots to balance on a single fulcrum bridge. Many can balance one. Some can do two. Only the most innovative trio of robots can do three. This year the Rams became that “King Maker” that facilitates consistent triple balances and this allowed the final alliance to win on the field.
Team 4001 consists of over 50 students who gained valuable experience in
dealing with complex, multidimensional, real-world challenges.
The students became true professionals.
In many ways this is the most important win. Over 50 students joined the team with little or no experience in FIRST, robotics, engineering, or anything more complex than your typical teenage endeavor. Through commitment, positive attitude, and plenty of basic smarts, they engineered a complex organization of technical teams, business teams, outreach teams, and more. They learned what it takes to take on ambitious multidimensional challenges in the real world.

Quanser won
This was the first time that any of us had mentored a FIRST team. I had been part of the judging community for years but I had never had a direct connection to a specific team. The rewards for us was the satisfaction of seeing our modest input have such a profound impact. The best thing was that we really did not do much. We helped them clarify their goals, offer them basic advice on how to navigate all the different paths ahead of them, and then we stood back and let the team do its thing. In many ways, our doing so little meant that that little bit that we did do was incredibly important. To all you Quanser mentors with young families, take note.
Quanser's Director of Engineering Paul Karam and Systems Control Manager Cameron Fulford are
just two of the Quanser engineers who did some early mentoring of Team 4001.
I have a fundamental belief on topics of education. If you start with bright, motivated kids, you can achieve the impossible and our educational strategy should take advantage of that. Sometimes I wonder whether we do too much to massage the learning environment to make it more “suitable” for them. This year’s FIRST odyssey reaffirmed that if you have ambition, are willing to work hard, and work closely with your peers, magic can happen. Thank you 4001 for providing us this valuable life lesson.
- 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.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Supporting Student Competitions Further Helps Graduate Industry-ready Engineers

At Quanser, we’re completely committed to captivating students through highly motivating, hands-on education. Day in, day out, Quanser teaching solutions – hardware, software and curriculum - help students stay engaged with their engineering studies by bridging the gap between theory and practice. We make it easy for students to learn more thoroughly through interacting with physical devices and doing practical exercises. But we don’t stop there. We like to engage students in other ways as well. 

One way is to get involved with student competitions such as this year’s Mechatronics Symposium at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario. The Symposium showcased capstone projects created by Waterloo’s fourth year mechanical and mechatronics engineering students. Not only were the projects diverse, they successfully addressed serious engineering challenges.  Ultimately they offered clear proof of how practical and visionary these undergraduates are. 

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"Today was really about experiencing firsthand how diverse and rich the educational experience has become at many universities," says Dr. Tom Lee, Quanser's Chief Education Officer and a graduate of the University of Waterloo. "We've seen some impressive capstone projects at Waterloo today, but worldwide, we're also seeing great student competitions and many different ways that hands-on education is being delivered at universities these days. It's truly exciting stuff."

This year Quanser took on a judging role and also sponsored the Symposium’s prize for Innovative Design. Lending such support to projects that offer real-world engineering solutions is fundamental to achieving our goal of helping universities graduate industry-ready engineers.
Whether it’s judging capstone projects at individual universities, supporting student competitions at the global level, creating engaging teaching solutions or mentoring students in the K -12 group, Quanser's entire focus is to enhance hands-on education and in-depth learning.  As for this exciting event at the University of Waterloo, it not only showed the value of this approach, it offered new proof that the future of engineering is in very good hands indeed.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Quanser Exposes Students to Real-World Challenges In Sustainable Engineering

If you’re a regular visitor to our engineering blog, you already know about the Quanser Challenge, the unique, ISTEC-based global student competition to design new approaches to teaching sustainable engineering.

The appeal of this competition is simple: it will enhance students’ industry-ready skills by exposing them to the complexities of real world engineering design while they’re still in school. It’s also a chance to use the kind of powerful, industry-based tools they’ll be working with after graduation, equipment like data acquisition boards from a leading company like National Instruments and related tools from Quanser.  Ultimately the Quanser Challenge gives students a golden opportunity to put their thinking caps on and help advance the cause of sustainable engineering. Little wonder we feel that everyone who has entered this competition will be a winner, since the exercise is so relevant to real-world needs and experiences.
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Watch the short video as Tom Lee, Quanser's Chief Education Officer, outlines the benefits of the Quanser Challenge and offers participating students some basic tips on achieving the best possible results. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On Educational Philosophy and Cheeseburgers

Recently, I found myself at a conceptual singularity during a visit and presentation to a prominent university. An accomplished professor presented some very insightful though contrarian points to our proposal and in the end, basically challenged the foundational framework of what we were presenting. It was like showing up to a pot-luck party at a vegan friend’s house with a plate of cheeseburgers.

When one works for a vibrant, innovative technology company, it’s very easy to get caught up in our strategic vision and forget the fact that the societal context that we work in is quite complex and is not quite as concise or clean as one would wish it to be. The great irony is that if people like me do our day jobs well, then the great complexities of human existence get boiled down into very succinct, high impact, bullet points that crisply describe how our offerings improve our customers’ work and indeed their lives.
Quanser engineer Peter Martin goes for a test drive...
not realizing he's headed for a philosophical singularity.
That’s great business but it’s not without its pitfalls. We at Quanser feed into the education system. Education is something that is universally acknowledged as the foundation of a stable, dynamic, modern society. The opinions on how best to deliver education, however, is one of the most complex, multifaceted debates that society engages in.

The Nature of Motivation
The philosophical question embodied in this discourse was “What is the nature of motivation?”. The debate erupted when Quanser engineer Peter Martin and I were presenting some of our recent lab concepts and, in particular, the notion of mapping a strong application framework around the fundamental control concepts. The new Quanser Driving Simulator is an example. The benefits bullet points are pretty simple:
  • increase motivation among students with an engaging, familiar visual environment
  • better connect theoretical concepts to real applications
  • introduce students to modern analytical techniques that are used in industry
As it turns out not everyone viewed it as that simple. The rhetorical polka went something like this:
Yours truly: … so as you can see, this technique represents a fresh approach to a critical problem of motivation in the curriculum …

Passionate and highly accomplished professor: … I don’t think that’s at all motivating …

Yours truly: … what do you mean?

Passionate and highly accomplished professor: … the DC motor is too abstract. It looks nothing like a real car. How could the student connect that to reality?!

Yours truly: … [to self] how did I miss this?

How much abstraction can a student handle before losing motivation for his subject?
This question can lead to a lively and valuable debate.
The Balance Between Representation and Abstraction
By necessity, educators must provide some representation or abstraction of the real world in their teaching. Otherwise we’d be forced to supply every student with a BMW and a Boeing 787. The heated debates often center on the level of abstraction. In this particular incident, the professor was fundamentally opposed to the concept of using visualization to inject realism onto an arguably abstract DC Motor. Consequently, a lab dealing with automotive techniques should literally have a physical vehicle of some sort moving around. Any evidence we presented on our choice of visualization over a simplified physical vehicle in the end got the discussion to a stalemate.

The Challenge of Curriculum Modernization
Curriculum modernization, indeed, is one of those really wicked problems that society is currently dealing with. The historical pedagogy in engineering education pegs the abstraction balance point at the very theoretical extreme – i.e. mathematical models and pure analysis. More recently, with the emergence of “casual mechatronics” like Mindstorms and other hobby platforms, we see professors opting to motivate students with, for the lack of a better word, fun, and arguably at the expense of rigor.

The Quanser Pedagogy Is Actually a Hybrid
At Quanser we believe in the importance of rigor and strong analytics in engineering design but we try our best to present the experience in engaging dynamic environments. And for the most part it is very well received and very successful in real universities.

The business of serving academia can be challenging. In some ways, a university is like any customer in any segment. They have needs and the vendor who can best meet those needs at a good price wins the deal. In other ways though it is very different in that the decision-making processes and internal dynamics have a uniqueness that don’t exist in other large human organizations. Principally, it often seeks and celebrates dissent.

Ongoing Debate Is Important To Pedagogical Success
I recently stumbled on a LinkedIn thread in which a young recent-Ph.D. instructor was soliciting support for some collective response to key contemporary issues facing the higher education community. What ensued is truly classic academia: a lengthy trail of very articulate and passionate points of support and points of dissent. Even before the digital age, this existed. The main difference today is that we seem to have readily accessible transcripts.
The business of serving academia can be challenging.  In some ways their
decision-making processes and internal dynamics are completely unique.
A casual reading of that LinkedIn thread or a light reflection of my own encounter with the professor might indicate that things are unraveling. For me, it’s exactly the opposite. Frank expressions of well-conceived opinions on complex issues are critical to the success of the modern university, even if the direction is non-convergent. The mind is at its sharpest when challenged right down to one’s core beliefs. The main thing that I took away from all of this is that we need to be vigilant. As our lab concepts continue to enjoy increasing adoption we can’t forget that what we have delivered is one possible answer to a series of extremely complex, if not intractable, academic challenges. The good news is, Quanser has a very strong history of managing complexity. Our range and diversity of products and our ambitious goals for curriculum innovation are clear testaments to our appreciation and respect for the unique and treasured aspects of global academia.

As for our disagreement about the driver simulation, the feedback we got from the university was that they thoroughly enjoyed the lively debate and the debate may or may not have any influence in the future on their adopting this approach. In other words, it was one of those classically orthogonal discussions… heated in the long run, but likely neutral in impact. The ultimate irony is that the system was largely refined in collaboration with that institution’s faculty so the debate was primarily an intellectual engagement of peers and not so much a judgment on a concept. Having said that, I will be better prepared for the next time… and I’ll leave the cheeseburgers to my kids.

- 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.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Naval Postgraduate School Expands Their Quanser UVS Lab

January in Toronto is not the nicest time of year, so when I was asked to help set up an expanding graduate laboratory at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California I didn't take too long to think about it. Having been to NPS last year to help set up their first Quanser Unmanned Vehicle Systems (UVS) Lab, I knew that Monterey in January is a nice place to be.
In a busy 3-day visit to the Naval Postgraduate School, Quanser's Cameron Fulford installed the latest version of QUARC control software, installed and demoed over 10 unique Quanser experiments, and trained the graduate students in the use of Quanser's Qball-X4 UAVs.
In my last visit to NPS, I set up a UVS lab with one Qball-X4 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and some Qbot Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV), along with a handful of rotary experiments based on our ubiquitous Quanser SRV02 Rotary Base Unit. This year, NPS was expanding the UVS lab as well as the controls lab by adding 3 new Qballs, 3 SRV02 plants, 3 linear cart plants, and a large number of rotary and linear modules that allow experiments to be quickly swapped on the plants. As a result, NPS now has a world class graduate-level controls teaching lab, and students there have unparalleled access to hands-on experiments.

In a short, 3-day visit I was able to upgrade their lab to QUARC 2.2, install and demo over 10 unique rotary and linear experimentsto faculty and students, as well as set up and train the graduate students in the use of our Qball-X4 UAVs, which they are using for a variety of multi-vehicle, autonomous control research applications. By the end of the third day, the graduate students were taking turns flying the Qballs using joysticks, but they hope to soon have them flying by themselves!

I'm looking forward to the results of their multi-vehicle research using our Qball UAVs and the next chance I get to visit Monterey.

- Cameron Fulford