Educators and Industry Foster Tomorrow’s Engineers Through Student Competitions

September 25, 2018 Lauren Tabolinsky, MathWorks

According to a recent study by Randstad US, more than half of students in the United States (52 percent) ages 11-17 say they don’t know anyone with a job in the field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). Another 76 percent reported knowing little about what engineers actually do day-to-day. These findings point to a significant lack of familiarity with the skills required to launch a successful STEM career, something the survey data reinforced by reporting that students’ interest in STEM fields waned as they moved through high school.   

Herein lies the challenge – how can educators foster curiosity in their young students and ignite a passion for STEM subjects that persists through secondary school and into their college years?

Student Competitions + Early Involvement = Sustained Success

One promising solution has proven to be student engineering competitions. In the U.S. alone, thousands of high school students engage in such competitions each year across a variety of STEM disciplines, including electrical, mechanical and software engineering and computer science. Here, students are given the opportunity to accelerate their educational growth by stepping into the shoes of an engineer and solving real-world technology challenges.

BEST Robotics, for example, is a competition designed for students in middle and high school in which the goal is to build a functioning robot from scratch. It’s a low-risk, hands-on opportunity for students to test their interest in STEM subjects and helps develop business and communication skills by creating mini engineering and marketing departments – there is even a student-CEO who manages the team.

For educators like Alaina Pettus of Brooks High School in Killen, Alabama, competitions like BEST Robotics are not only vital for students’ individual development, but classroom involvement as well. “Since we started participating in BEST, I’ve seen a real change in the way my team approaches the competition each year, but it doesn’t stop there,” said Pettus. “They bring this problem-solving approach to their daily course work. Instead of jumping straight to execution, they take a step back, exercise patience, think about the overall problem and, ultimately, the desired result. It’s a smarter way to approach a situation, from schoolwork to daily interactions with classmates.”

Breeding Better University Students, and Ultimately, Employees  

Exposure to competitions in high school can be an effective on-ramp for students to pursue engineering at university, where once again competitions are available to help prepare them for careers in industry.

RoboNation, a community founded by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), runs a series of college-level competitions whose goal is to improve the design of maritime, submersible and aerial drones. Students design, build and demonstrate UAVs capable of autonomous flight and navigation, remote imaging and communication, and the execution of tasks including sensing, detecting, and avoiding stationary and moving obstacles.

RoboNation competitions don’t just provide an educational outlet for students. They serve as a test center where early versions of unmanned systems could eventually serve real-world applications, for example, by improving UAV search-and-rescue to more quickly identifying stranded hikers, deliver water and medication, and report their location to first responders.

For Industry Sponsors, Doing Well Means Doing Good

This is where corporate sponsors take particular notice. For MathWorks and other science and engineering companies, engineering competitions are living laboratories – incubators that encourage students to experiment, fail, and learn quickly from those failures.

By furnishing these student laboratories with real-world hardware and software tools, technical support and mentoring, companies can help reduce the time spent on things like basic coding so that competition teams can spend more of their energy innovating. Competitions also push students to the forefront of technology integration, combining elements of electrical, mechanical and computer engineering while incorporating emerging technologies such as machine learning and deep learning.

In this way, industry benefits from engineering competitions, because the students they are investing in are destined to become the innovators of the coming generation.

This has given rise to competitions like the AutoDrive Challenge, which is hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and draws sponsors from the automotive world (General Motors) and the technology arena (MathWorks). Students who undertake the challenge essentially mirror the multi-disciplined development efforts of commercial engineering teams who are designing self-driving cars.

Bringing Learnings Back to the Classroom

While not yet a mandated part of school curricula, key learnings, resources, and skills from student competitions are starting to become more integrated in traditional classroom settings. Companies like MathWorks and the Robotics, Education & Competition Foundation are working with teachers participating in student competitions to teach them how to integrate software and resources into their classrooms on a regular basis. Curriculum guides are also shared with educators to help facilitate discussion around electrical, mechanical and software engineering and computer science.

To learn more about the benefits of student competitions, best practices for incorporating methodologies in the classroom, and how to get involved, visit MathWorks’ Student Competition Support Page.

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