Friday, May 24, 2013

A Strong Belief In Hands-On Engineering Brings Quanser and FIRST Together Again

One of our favourite outreach programs is the annual FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).  Every year we get involved and participate as individual mentors, judges, and overall as a corporate sponsor.

Why? We agree wholeheartedly with their mission: to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting, mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills.

Last month Dr. Tom Lee, Quanser’s Chief Education Officer, blogged about his recent experience as a FIRST judge advisor, saying it renewed his faith in the younger generation’s inquisitive spirit and sheer engineering skills. Now two Quanser engineers, Peter Martin and Gilbert Lai, talk about their experiences as FIRST mentors this year. Peter has helped mentor the St. Robert Catholic High School team in Thornhill, Ontario for the past two years and Gilbert, who has just joined Quanser, has been mentoring the St. Mildred’s-LightbournGirls School team in Oakville, Ontario for the past three years.  Peter and Gilbert recently got together to discuss their mentoring experiences.

Q:  Before we start, what was the FIRST challenge this year?
Peter: As always, FIRST has an individual component and a three-team alliance component.  Individual school teams competed in building and controlling robots that shot Frisbees into targeted openings for individual awards, which was a lot of fun.  The three-team alliances were formed at the competition to cooperate as a team to achieve the highest possible team score based  on their frisbee shooting abilities plus a special challenge in which the robots had to climb a pyramid.

Quanser's Peter Martin  found the students he mentored at St. Robert High School were quite adept at building and programming their robot. He helped them stay simple and follow a well-thought out design and development process. 
Q:  Outline how you mentored your particular school.
Gilbert:  St. Mildred’s had been in the FIRST competition for many years and I’ve been mentoring them for the past three.  The first thing to note about the St. Mildred girls is that they are very quick learners.  They went from being unsure how to assess a problem and map it out, to identifying and solving problems on their own, without me.  Basically I helped them learn critical thinking, problem solving and project management skills. But their other mentors and I all agree that the girls taught us much more than we taught them.  They already had advanced soft skills in working together as a team and seeking consensus for decision-making.

That helped as they overcame some big challenges. The girls built their robot in spite of significant technical limitations. The school doesn’t have a dedicated workshop and the girls had to improvise and work around that.  It was inspiring and an eyeopener for me.  They outperformed all my expectations.

Peter:  This was only the second year that St. Robert entered a team and my second year helping to mentor them.  So there were some significant differences in our experiences.  For one thing, there’s a great machine shop at St. Robert, so we didn’t have that problem. 

Much of what I did was help the St. Robert team establish the teamwork and organizational skills that St. Mildred’s excelled at.  I helped them stay simple and follow a design and development process.  They learned to break down the project into sub-challenges to build the individual robot components, to be rigorous about documentation and passing along skills to new team members. They also started doing CAD design before bringing everything together to integrate all the parts onto the whole.

I expected to be heavily involved in helping them with software programming, but they often accomplished their work in LabVIEW and Java before I even got there; they just did it themselves.  Quite often I found they didn’t need me.  They took ownership for the project and plowed ahead on their own.

As mentor for St. Mildred's School FIRST Robotics team, Gilbert Lai found the students to possess remarkable ability to work together as a team.  He was struck by how quickly  they learned to ask the right questions and assumed complete ownership of their project. 
Q:  What did the students get out of their involvement with FIRST?
Gilbert:  At St. Mildred’s, the students matured very quickly.  They went from not knowing what they didn’t know to identifying a problem, to finding the right tool or person to address it.  They learned what questions to ask to advance a project.  And they took complete ownership of the project; even the younger students were eventually unafraid to be involved, by getting their hands on the power tools and driving the robots around for testing and competition. 

Peter:  This was a real coming of age year for the St. Robert team.  They encountered a lot more technical challenges than in years past and that was good, because they learned what to do when things don’t go according to plan.  So this was excellent real-world engineering experience, I think.  Overall they also learned how to do engineering as opposed to just doing exercises on paper.  They applied their skills to actually build something that was supposed to work.  They used wrenches and power drills to put parts together.  And they learned why we test things and how to refine things before we get to the finished product. Students coming out of FIRST know it all, everything from using a screwdriver to the specifics of sensor integration.

Q:  Why does Quanser partner with FIRST?
Peter:  We’re passionate about engineering and want to share that passion with students no matter what their age.  Quanser exists to advance engineering education, to help graduate a new generation of engineers with two key abilities: first, to be industry-ready and bring real hands-on engineering experience to the working world; and second, to have the passion and motivation to innovate new solutions to engineering’s grand challenges.

Our methodology says that learning needs to have a hands-on component to be effective.  In other words, a good engineering education starts on paper and continues in the workshop. It involves planning and teamwork, motivating applications, software design, hardware-in-the-loop, prototyping, testing and refining. That’s what the kids participating in FIRST are doing, and that’s why we’re excited to partner with FIRST. 

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