The acclaimed STEM and FIRST programs are great ways to bring some hands-on engineering exposure to for younger students. Even if they are not going to follow a STEM-related path later in life (hey, we can't all be engineers, nor would that be a good idea for so many reasons), at least it may give them some appreciation for what engineering is about, and how much of design is related to solving problems while balancing multiple tradeoffs, when bounded by constraints. They may even learn that there is more to “engineering” than just sitting at a keyboard, coding, or writing apps (not that there is anything wrong with those, of course).
However, these STEM/FIRST programs can only go so far, due to the age, skill set, and available time. That's why the recently concluded Texas Instruments Innovation Challenge North America Design Contest 2015 is an impressive “step-up” event reaching into a much-more advanced league. This annual event for college teams (you can see the entry forms and rules at the contest site) shows that there are still aspiring engineers who know – or will find out – that a full-scale project involves many facets of circuitry and systems. These span sensors, analog, power, digital, processor, memory, and I/O domains; software; and even a comprehensive bill of materials (BOM) with cost estimates. [Disclosure: in previous years, I was one of the judges for this event.]
A look at this year's finalists and category winners, regardless of their place ranking, is impressive (see below for full list and their linked project reports—well worth reading). These teams came up with some pretty clever applications, some of which may have commercial potential, and some may not—and that's more than OK (see Figures 1, 2, and 3 ). The objective is to identify a situation where engineering inspiration meets real-world constraints and solve the many implementation problems. (You can see more photos of the teams, their projects, the judges, and the award ceremony here.)
These problems can be related to the high-level system architecture, deeper down in the circuitry and noise, or even related to software. Some of the teams did not fully complete their projects, given the time limits or problems encountered, and that's OK, too. As the saying goes, “it's the journey that counts, not the destination” (of course, don’t try telling that to your project manager who is charged with getting your company's product released by a target date, but that's a different situation).
Organizing a contest such as this one is a major project, requiring a commitment of significant staff time and company resources, and I commend TI for doing it. Other companies, especially smaller ones, may not have the bandwidth to do so. Perhaps they can provide alternative real-life exposure via a meaningful internship program (no, not getting coffee and copying files) where the student sees preliminary design options, design reviews, cost and BOM exercises, product test meetings, and even product-release documentation , plus the all-important pilot run.
If it’s a larger company, there may be several products in development on various timelines, so the student as intern could go from product to product over the course of a year and see all these facets of product design, development, and release, in a series of rotating fixed-period clerkships like teaching hospitals use.
What are your thoughts about contest such as this one from Texas Instruments, and the undergraduate engineering education process itself? Have you been involved in mentoring any students at the college level?
Texas Instruments Innovation Challenge North America Design Contest 2015
- 1st Place- University of Florida: 7 Deadly Synths: A non-contact synthesizer
- 2nd Place- University of Texas at Dallas: Real-time American Sign Language
- 3rd Place- University of Florida: Hercules Autopilot
These placed in the remaining top-10 finalist spots, in no special order:
- Texas A&M University: Cycle Fit: Health monitoring system
- University of Toronto: Sustainable Wireless Antitheft Device
- University of Florida: E-trike
- University of Texas at Austin: ChemSense: A portable mid-infrared chemical detection sensor
- Boston University: Smart Grid Test Facility
- University of Michigan: Power Blade
- University of Florida: Clean Sweep
- Best Video Demonstration- Boston University: Smart Grid Test Facility
- Best Environmental Impact/Most Green- University of Michigan: Power Blade
- Best Use of TI Portfolio- University of Toronto: Sustainable Wireless Antitheft Device
- Best Use of TI Wireless- Rice University: Sith Putter