Competitions build better engineers | ECE | Virginia Tech


Competitions build better engineers

Competitions build better engineers

Competitions (Photos by Christina O'Connor)

A student zooms around the track in a hybrid car designed by a team of her peers. She steps out and removes her helmet as a crowd cheers and her teammates surround her. Great, right But how much do these high-profile design competitions actually help students

It's difficult to find hard data on the impact of competitions on engineering education, but easy to find advocates among students, professors, and employers. ECE's Dan Stilwell, who co-advises the autonomous underwater vehicle team sums up the advocates' position: "The undergraduate student competition teams are among the best educational experiences we can offer. I'm a huge fan."

Competitions have become an increasingly popular tool for getting students enthusiastic about engineering.

Engineering competitions are fun: they motivate students through hands-on, real-world experiences. Students come away with renewed passion and enthusiasm for their coursework. Some students might even sign up for a discipline because of the competitions offered in the curriculum.

Employers love to see that a student has practical experience working with a budget, a timetable, and a group of other engineers or even marketing or art students. Some competitions have even led to major technological innovations.

Competitions have become an increasingly popular tool for getting students enthusiastic about engineering. Students can choose from a smorgasbord of vehicle and robotic competitions tailored to specific technologies. They can build a hybrid car, a solar-powered car, a fully autonomous car and who knows how many boats, helicopters and other things that move. They can also build robots that play soccer, pick up and sort recyclables, or perform any number of other tasks.

Virginia Tech has a dedicated building, the Ware Lab, for student competitions. "Did you know that the Ware Lab has great machining and fiberglass facilities, but these can only be used by students on a competition team" Stilwell asks. "This is a great rule. The College of Engineering has made specific and useful investments in the student competition teams."

Many of the senior projects in Virginia Tech's Department of Mechanical Engineering are based on competitions. In ECE, competitions are an increasingly important part of students' experience at Virginia Tech, with many students receiving course credit for their work. This year, ECE students have participated in the Solar Decathalon, the formula car, the Lunabotics team, the IEEE robot contest, and the autonomous underwater vehicle team, among others. Many of these teams first were sponsored by other departments, but as electrical and computer engineering technology has become critical to almost every field of endeavor, the teams are increasingly seeking ECE students to help out. During course sign-up week, undergraduate email inboxes are filled with announcements of dozens of interdisciplinary team opportunities.

Relationship to coursework

The competition-based learning model has grown with student claims that it complements and helps motivate their coursework with valuable hands-on experience.

Micah Boswell (CPE '11), captain of the AUVT team, said that students think that robotics competitions are "the coolest things they've done." A lot of topics students encounter in competitions are covered in class, and a lot aren't, he noted. "You can only teach so much in class and the competitions give you a chance to explore so many additional aspects."

The most fun, according to Boswell, was going to the competition. "We met with 29 teams from all over the world. Just seeing how those students attacked the same problem was a huge learning experience," he commented.

Graduate student Zack Zaremski, lead ECE on the Lumenhaus Solar Decathalon team agreed. One of the highlights was seeing all the other team's solutions and picking up ideas for the next version, he said.

Students learn from other teams, but also from older students on their own team. Kevin Green (CPE '10), captain of Virginia Tech's IEEE hardware team said that, because he was interacting with older students, he gained hands-on experience with technologies and techniques that usually aren't taught to new students. The experience was very useful in his senior-level embedded design course. "That class would've been a lot more difficult had I not been through this competition for two years prior to taking it. I was used to working with a group of people and I was comfortable using test equipment and the electronics side of things."

He speculated that without the competition experience, he may not have been a CPE. "I'm not your typical A/B student. I got frustrated and bored with our Intro to Engineering' courses. In those courses it could be difficult to see how the things we were learning would apply to our future work," he said. "The courses I do find interesting are the ones I can relate to the robotics projects we've done, and those are the subjects that I really do a great job on. So, selective effort here and there, but maybe I wouldn't be doing anything without the robotics competitions."

Although experience with a competition's particular technology may help students in their coursework and curriculum, they unanimously agree that competition experience helps them learn time management, group coordination and leadership, communications, and budgeting skills.

"One of the biggest challenges we had to overcome was communicating with the rest of the team and getting everyone in one place to make decisions," said Zaremski of the Lumenhaus project, which involved almost 100 students from different disciplines.

Although Green's team is smaller, he agreed that getting everyone together despite pressing course and personal obligations, especially during the semester, was one of his teams' biggest challenges.

Employers love competition experience

Employers love to see experience with competitions on an applicant's rsum. "Sometimes companies float these competitions to see who the best students are and then hire them later," said Harpreet Dhillon, a master's student who recently participated in a competition funded by Qualcomm; the first-place prize for this competition included preference for an internship position with Qualcomm.

In a discipline that has been criticized for producing talented individuals who find it difficult to communicate or work with others, the collaborative atmosphere of undergraduate engineering competitions is a welcome complement to coursework.

Dedicated building for competition teams

The College of Engineering has a dedicated building for student competitions the Ware Lab.

Wanted: ECE students for teams

ECE students are encouraged to join interdisciplinary teams and receive technical elective credit and capstone design credit. A list of mechanical engineering electives and teams is available.