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New Engineers, New (Fun!) Education

 Bruce Morey








By Bruce Morey
Contributing Editor

If you ever find yourself worried about future generations of engineers, do not fret over the raw material in today’s high schoolers. I just had the wonderful experience of helping mentor a high school FIRST Robotics Corporation (FRC) club. These teams build and compete with a tele-operated robot, designed to complete challenges, like lift a tote or throw a ball, that change each year. The challenges mimic to a degree the competitive spirit of a sporting event, played in arenas on a defined field, with stands of cheering on-lookers. There are lessons in this not just for educators but for us mid-career working engineers as well.

First, what was impressive was this group of teenagers, team FRC 830 the RatPack, designing and building a robot in six weeks. They cut sheet metal and tubing from a CAD design, drilled holes, connected motors, batteries, and controllers to fabricate and program a working tele-operated robot. This robot lifted stacks of shipping totes (part of this year’s game, Recycle Rush) and transported them around the field, depositing them where required to score points. It did not always work perfectly. Holes were drilled imprecisely, causing assembly problems. Lifting mechanisms had misalignments. Drive chains broke from time to time. Time management during the six week build season was, well, stressful. Not all students were equally motivated and some dropped out. Some put in less effort than others did.

Still, as a group these teenagers were motivated. How do I know? For example, they used a professional level CAD program, SolidWorks, to design their robot. A few members took a two week course taught by the Ann Arbor Maker Works. After that, they practiced and developed their skills and one of the more interested developed a training course for the rest of the team. Working with the same MakerWorks, they learned and used 2D CNC cutting tools, drill presses, and various band saws. They built prototypes that failed and learned from their failures. They never gave up, rarely argued divisively, and kept solving problems. They had a gleam in their eye that I wished I had seen more often from my employees in my time as an engineering manager.

They had fun while learning.

Fun? While learning engineering? Wait a minute…

Something unique is going on here. I was in deep envy over the education these kids were getting compared to my own. Mine was heavy on mathematics and engineering science that seemed a lonely, hypercompetitive slog at times. Theirs was practical, filled with camaraderie, and resulted in a working device they built with their own hands.

I needed to search for some broader meaning of what I saw. I sought out David Goldberg, co-author of the book A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education to discuss this. “In many ways academics is behind the times, and FRC Robotics is a prime exemplar of that,” he explained. “It is enormously successful in teaching kids in ways we describe in our book.” After earning a PhD, Goldberg went on to a long career in engineering education, leaving a tenured post in 2010. He and his co-authors, part of a broader movement in reforming engineering education, found some surprising things on their way to starting two new education incubators - Olin College and the iFoundry education incubator within the University of Illinois. He agrees that, while math and physics is important, they cannot be the sole element. Developing emotional control, engaging other aspects of creativity that includes understanding people, language, and our own bodies is just as important as engineering science.

The book describes five basic pillars to transform engineering education: Joy, Trust, Courage, Openness, and Community. “Trust is vital,” explained Goldberg. “Trust leads to courage, to risk being wrong, which leads to initiative - that is how someone gets unleashed.”

This brings us back to our high school robotics team. Trust was indeed the modus operandi of the adult mentors. We followed the example of our lead mentor for the team, Richard Earle, a volunteer who holds a day job as an interior systems engineer for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA.) He stressed student leadership, guiding students by challenging them to think about the effects of their actions and decisions, but allowing student leaders to make final decisions - and letting those decisions stand. Trust. The result was, in my opinion, the fulfillment of all five of Goldberg’s pillars.

Goldberg also pointed out that FRC Robotics was founded by Dean Kamen, a genius engineer who left Worcester Polytechnic Institute without graduating (I won’t say drop-out). In fact, if you think about it, many enormously successful engineers joined Kamen in avoiding university, from Thomas Edison to Bill Gates. These are what Goldberg describes as the Entrepreneurial engineers. These people are going to be more important in the 21st century. “As information technology breaks down barriers, as quality becomes more important, entrepreneurship raises in importance,” he said. These are the forcing functions requiring all of us, from new student to mid-career engineer, to re-think how we approach work. At the same time, the role of universities in advancing engineering science remains important, according to Goldberg. “We need to recognize that we need two types of engineers, a narrowly trained engineer who is expert in certain fields and the broader innovator,” he explained. It is just that the universities have concentrated on the first to the exclusion of the second.

What does this mean to us mid-career engineers?

“Concentrate on sharpening your soft skills,” he said, with an eye towards building that trust and sense of purpose that unleashed those high school kids. “Ask yourself, how well do you listen? Are you truly curious about the answers? Are developing unambiguous commitments between teams and team members?”

Goldberg also addressed the supposed shortage of skilled technical labor that many in the manufacturing community complain of. “Manufacturing has done itself a disservice in the story it tells about itself,” he said. “As a community, it does not brag about itself. My students think of manufacturing as dirty, grimy, awful places. When we brought them into a new plant, they saw how bright and clean they were. They would remark about how cool it was to make things.”

Published Date : 3/5/2015

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