Tomorrow's Engineers Take Center Stage

17 Apr, 2006 By: Sara Ferris

Student competitions put the fun back in science and math, taking steps that help ensure the future of the engineering profession

We hear quite a bit these days about cultivating the next generation of engineers. The concern is that fewer students are opting to pursue studies in math and science, which may lead to a shortage of engineers as the current crop retires.

I recently had the opportunity to witness two such endeavors -- a FIRST Robotics Competition and the Dimension Extreme Redesign Challenge -- and came away heartened that the next generation of engineers will be just fine. Such events aim to attract students by making technology fun -- and there's an abundance of scholarships available to participants.

These programs rely heavily on the contributions of companies and individuals. I'd encourage you to check out what's going on in schools in your area and consider helping out, whether with your expertise, in-kind donations or financial support.

Autodesk included a trip to the Pacific Northwest regional FIRST Robotics Competition as part of its Inventor Summit press event in the Portland area in early March. Autodesk is an official supplier to the contest, providing each team with a copy of Inventor for use in designing robotic entries.

The FIRST Robotics Competition, founded by Dean Kamen of Segway fame, has been around for 15 years. Each participating team receives a standard kit of parts from which to build a robot to compete in a predetermined challenge. Cadalyst author Jeff Rowe outlined the details of this year's competition in the March 16 edition of MCAD Tech News.

The goal of FIRST, according to cofounder Woody Flowers, is to "change the culture about science and engineering." Alumni of the contest are seven times more likely than nonparticipants to go into engineering. The feeling is that if one student can be redirected from law school to engineering, the world will be a better place.

What's particularly appealing about the FIRST contest is that it attempts to replicate the real work-world experience. Each team has six weeks to build its robot. During that period, teams work six to seven days per week. The time pressure forces them to prioritize which features to include, once it becomes clear that they can't incorporate everything they want.

At the end of the six weeks, teams send their creations to storage, then uncrate them the day before the competition starts. Around half end up not working correctly at that point, so teams are again under the gun to fix them.

Beyond the technical challenge, a goal of FIRST is to also focus on interpersonal skills, with an eye toward developing what Flowers calls "gracious professionalism." Teams are not limited to members who have purely technical interests, and they pull in students to help with efforts such as creating Web sites and promotional brochures or organizing fundraising -- a priority because the typical team spends $8,000-$10,000 during the challenge.

In addition, the contest is set up so each team has to work with other teams in order to win its matches. This also adds an element of strategy, as teams track not only who they work well with, but also which teams are most effective against their main competitors.

This year's final will take place April 27-29 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and will include more than 10,000 students from 331 high schools across the United States and Canada.

At National Manufacturing Week in Rosemont, Illinois, last month, I had the chance to meet the winners of the Dimension 3D Printing Group's Extreme Redesign student design competition. In that contest, high school and college students can submit STL files of their designs -- anything from products to architecture -- and Dimension builds models using its rapid prototyping systems. Winning entries this year ranged from a detachable electric cord reel by Keith Liddy, a high school student from Brunswick, Ohio, to a perpetual calendar by German university student Gabi Ritter, to a wall mount for an electronic toothbrush by Bruce Cherry from the State of Washington.

As mentioned, Dimension does the actual 3D printing of the contest entries, but it's not uncommon these days for a school to have its own rapid prototyping device available for student use, I was surprised to learn.

The contest this year received more than 500 entries. Judges from Harley-Davidson and Smart Design selected the winners based on creativity, usefulness, part integrity and aesthetics. You can view the winning entries here.