Engineering education is ageless

  • 19-Apr-2013 04:25 EDT
2013 Fuel cell competition.JPG

Genevieve Morand (left) and Victoria Smerdon work to assemble a fuel cell toy car. The St. Edith School students joined 150 of their peers from eight Michigan schools to compete at the third annual International Fuel Cell Challenge on April 18 at the SAE 2013 World Congress in Detroit.  

Getting elementary-school-age students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) begins with engaging youngsters in activities that spur the imagination.

SAE International’s A World In Motion (AWIM) program offers age-appropriate, teacher-administered, and industry-volunteer-assisted programs for the classroom. For instance, AWIM’s kindergarten through third-grade activities also shine a spotlight on children’s books with engineering lessons.

“We didn’t pick literature off the shelf,” Chris Ciuca, Director of Pre-Professional Programs at SAE International, said during an April 18 session on “Engineering Education” at the SAE 2013 World Congress in Detroit. "This is SAE-published literature. We contracted with an author and said, ‘These are the scientific processes we want to investigate. Can you write a story around X, Y, and Z?’"

Older students learn STEM lessons via various AWIM challenge kits. “Whether it’s designing a balloon-powered car that travels 10 meters, or whether it’s designing a geartrain that’s going to climb a 30-degree slope, we want (students) to set upfront goals,” said Ciuca, adding, “As teachers and professionals, we need to challenge students: ‘Why do you think that happened? How do you think you could improve that if at all possible?’”

Many AWIM participants develop a STEM state of mind, as evidenced by the findings of a five-year independent longitudinal research study. For instance, the study showed that students independently pursued more STEM-related courses after an AWIM experience, while teachers felt more knowledgeable about physical science content.

Hands-on learning is an invaluable component of engineering education. According to Kettering University professor Gregory Davis, who is also the school’s Director of the Automotive Engine Research Laboratory, college students “need to be challenged to study the complex interactions of real engineering systems.”

And one way to challenge the minds of college students is via the SAE Collegiate Design Series, which include Supermileage, Baja SAE, Clean Snowmobile, Aero Design, as well as Formula Hybrid, Formula Electric, and Formula SAE. All these competitions involve teamwork centered on the tasks of designing and building a vehicle.

“One of the benefits I see with the (SAE) challenges is these events really allow the students to apply principles that they’re learning in school—maybe in isolated classes—and weave those ideas together to solve a real problem,” said Davis.

Student engineers—like their professional counterparts—are not immune to bad outcomes. “My students get to see that you can design a great computer model, but sometimes you can’t build that model. I always like to say, ‘I want my students to experience their own design failures.’ Because then they learn going forward that you have to pay attention to different aspects,” Davis said.

For professional automotive engineers, the job is getting more and more complex. Consider that the Boeing 787 requires about 6.5 million lines of software code. But a premium car needs an astonishing 100 million lines of code to operate all its vehicle systems, according to Jose Lopes, Head of Technical Excellence for Product Development at Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in the U.K.

“This is the level of complexity that engineers have to manage within the auto industry,” Lopes said.

In 2010, JLR reached out to several U.K. universities and engineering institutions to establish the Technical Accreditation Scheme (TAS). The program’s essential aim is to provide JLR engineers with the best courses from the best sources.

“We identified core technology areas and broke those down into a number of discrete topics. Then we went out to the universities and said, ‘Who’s good at doing this? And who’s good at doing that?’ We used this process to integrate a number of universities and get what (JLR) needs from them,” Lopes said.

To date, 38% of product development engineers at JLR have taken at least one module via one of the university partners. Among all JLR engineers in the U.K., 33% have registered for an accredited module.

“For Jaguar Land Rover, this program has allowed us to have a transformational impact on our skills capability across engineering,” said Lopes, stressing that “we need to bolster our engineering skills to reflect our future technologies.”

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