Student Competitions Fuel Next-Gen Engineers

July 18, 2017 Sandeep Hiremath

Between 2014 and 2024, the number of STEM jobs will grow by 17%, compared to 12% anticipated growth for non-STEM jobs, reports Change the Equation. To keep up, young people must be more prepared with hands-on experience in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields if they hope to enter institutions of higher learning and eventually the workforce. How do we ensure that students are ready to tackle what lies ahead?

Student competitions are a great place to start; not your typical athletic contest or student election, but rather a competition involving robotics, engineering software, and collaboration. Middle and high schools all over the country (and the world) are now incorporating robotics competitions into their extracurricular lineup and even their regular STEM course curriculum.

One such educator, Alaina Pettus, of Brooks High School in Killen, Alabama, was introduced to the BEST Robotics Competition in 2012. BEST Robotics is an annual middle- and high-school competition that engages students in the study of engineering, science, and technology as they create remotely operated machines. The competition, which kicks off at the start of the school year, currently boasts over 18,000 student participants from 850 schools across the country.

Ms. Pettus’ team, Robocon, has won the regional competition four years in a row, and placed first at NWAL BEST and second at South’s BEST. The motivation comes solely from the success of the students. Pettus credits the competition for her new approach to teaching and parenting.

For the competition, students form teams based on interest and demand. There’s a marketing team, an engineering department, and even a CEO who makes sure that the team operates efficiently and effectively, on-time and on-budget. Together, they build a functioning robot from scratch, applying model-based design techniques with simulation and design software.

“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. They bring this problem-solving approach to their daily course work,” Ms. Pettus said. “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.”

A Student’s Perspective

Of the many impressive alumni on Ms. Pettus’ award-winning robotics team, Barkley Hunter, a recent graduate of Brooks High School, is a standout having received numerous awards for his designs and use of simulation software. Barkley, who was also a mentor to other area BEST robotics teams, first got involved in the competition during his freshman year of high school.

“I felt drawn to the competition and the Robocon team because I had an interest in engineering and robotics,” Barkley said. “Being able to explore engineering through this competition feels similar to what I can expect to encounter as I pursue engineering during and after college.”

To become an engineer, one must think like an engineer; To think like an engineer, it’s important to have access to the tools and scenarios these professionals work with on a daily basis. Through competitions, a student interested in engineering has an outlet to explore project-based learning and gain exposure to industry-recognized programming tools like RobotC, MathWorks’ MATLAB and Simulink, and EasyC. Typically, students would have to wait until college to get acquainted with these tools.

With student competitions though, teams receive industry-standard tools to assist with their robot development. In Barkley’s case, he began experimenting with various tools—RobotC, MATLAB and Simulink, and EasyC—during his first year of competition. Through trial and error, he was able to determine which tools are best for the simulation and robot design. This working knowledge of design tools helped him visualize concepts used in the classroom, especially complex logic systems.

Next Gen of Engineers Need Next-Gen Tools

It’s a widely held belief at MathWorks that students with competition experience become employees who are productive on the job from day one. Through software training and mentorship, MathWorks prepares and supports the next generation of scientists and engineers.

MATLAB and Simulink are flexible which allows users, in this case students, to adapt their project and then program advanced features into the robots. Simulink is especially easy to implement as a tool for programming robots for two key reasons. First, the process for building programs is intuitive and flexible, even across different platforms. For example, Simulink can program different types of robots because the tool’s environment is universal. Second, the ability to simulate programs makes the process easier and less time-consuming. There’s no need to download a faulty program to the robot to test it. Instead, users can simulate the program on a computer.

Dive Head First Into Student Competitions

While STEM courses aren’t yet a mandated part of school curriculum, there’s a professional demand for these skills. As parents and educators of children with a passion for STEM know, it’s imperative to arm them with the tools they will need to succeed in high school, college, and the working world.

Student competitions provide an academic and extracurricular advantage. They expose students to project-based learning and the engineering tools that they’ll use for a lifetime if they decide to pursue a career in STEM. More importantly, student competitions are a valuable exercise in problem solving. Whether you’re simulating a robotic arm or working with your colleagues to design an autonomous vehicle, it’s essential to know the engineering process.

Sandeep Hiremath is a passionate technologist and a STEM enthusiast with 7-plus years’ experience working in the K-12 and Higher Education fields. In his current role at MathWorks as a Technical Evangelist in the Education Marketing team, he’s focused on strategically supporting MathWorks-sponsored K-12 student competitions like BEST Robotics and VEX Robotics. He has a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Clemson University.

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