STEM competitions

Can student competitions revitalize STEM in higher ed?

If executed right, student competitions can effectively prepare tomorrow’s engineers for a changing technology landscape--here's how.

MathWorks’ Sebastian Castro, Education Technical Evangelist, says the days when engineers worked in dedicated teams, each performing a specific set of tasks, is evolving into a new model where successful design projects begin by breaking down traditional silos in the spirit of integration.

In this interview, Castro discusses how student competitions help engineers adapt to the changing technology landscape.

Q: What do new engineers need to know about what’s shaping the profession today?

Concepts such as artificial intelligence, cyber-physical systems, and the Internet of Things are just a few examples of trends at the forefront of technology that demand engineers work much more closely across multiple disciplines. If you think about what it takes to design and manufacture an unmanned aerial vehicle or a self-driving car, for example, there has never been more of a need to build teams with computer, electrical, mechanical, software and related engineering skills.

Q: How can we make sure we are adequately preparing the engineers of tomorrow to embrace this new reality?

One answer lies in a collaborative educational approach that brings faculty and industry together to expose students to real-world design challenges. By working outside of the traditional classroom on projects that require some level of engineering cross-pollination, we stand a much better chance of capturing their interest and preparing them for today’s tech market. As it turns out, student competitions are a perfect environment for this.

Q: Can you share an example of what that looks like?

One of many competitions that MathWorks supports is RoboCup, which incorporates research and an understanding of robotic systems. The RoboCup challenge is a long-term mission to build a team of autonomous soccer-playing robots that can beat a squad of humans by 2050. Along the way, RoboCup has spawned sister competitions, such as RoboCupRescue, in which the technology has been adopted by first responders for search-and-rescue missions, and RoboCupIndustrial, which has generated winning entries that were later adapted for manufacturing services and factory logistics.

What’s unique about these competitions is that engineering students are asked to design, prototype, and build autonomous vehicles and robots using standard industry hardware and software tools, including MATLAB and Simulink, in much the same way they would if they were working for a commercial enterprise.

(Next page: Machine learning, professional experience and competition advice)

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