Organizations are demanding more of graduates including qualifications like hands-on experience and knowledge with industry-standard tools. In conjunction with industry’s demands, students are arriving at college campuses better versed in engineering principles and better skilled at using hardware and software tools in the lab. Consequently, academia is being pushed to change its traditional classroom setting to meet industry’s demands. Among those universities leading this transition is Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“Computer aided engineering has changed the industry, and as a result, our curriculum has had to adjust in order to make sure we are preparing our students to the best of our ability,” Patrick Currier, associate professor and associate chair of the university’s Mechanical Engineering Department, said. “To that end, we’ve introduced entirely new courses based on what we are seeing in associated industries, and have also started to incorporate more design and testing into our curriculum.”
Learning from Student Competitions
One significant trend is the integration of student competitions into class and lab work. Many students began entering engineering competitions as early as elementary school, which exposed them to hands-on, project-based learning and a wide range of design tools.
Middle and high school robotics competitions are having a major impact on the engineering field and are causing academia to incorporate a project-based learning framework into their curricula, Currier said. This progression, he explained, is reshaping Embry-Riddle’s engineering department.
It’s the faculty that are committed to not only student competitions, but also incorporating the assignments into the classroom curriculum, Currier said. “For pretty much every class I teach, I tend to bring in some aspect of the competition so that students are able to take a problem and apply it,” he noted. “I actually have several classes that are built around student projects this way.”
In particular, the school’s unmanned systems course and robotics track were informed by its participation in a series of student competitions organized by RoboNation. Founded by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), RoboNation’s competitions comprise of several competitions encompassing ground, aerial and maritime projects; and involves physical modeling, robotics design, simulation, and prototyping. Through a corporate sponsorship with MathWorks, student competitors are provided access to industry-standard tools like MATLAB to help them design and build their project.
In class, Embry-Riddle students learn about sensors and basic motion control algorithms by building a tabletop robot. Then, they take those same engineering principles and techniques and use them in their competition designs.
“The problems in student competitions are often more relatable than the standard textbook examples,” Currier said. “And I see a much higher success rate when the students are able to process information and then actually work through the problem.”
Competitive Digital Processing
In addition to robotics and unmanned systems, digital processing is another RoboNation competition component that has worked its way into the classroom curriculum.
While Embry-Riddle teaches the basics of digital processing, students who participate in RoboNation have shown that they are able to accomplish more advanced processing tasks.
At the same time, competitions introduce students to a cross-section of engineering disciplines that they might not otherwise experience. It’s not uncommon for student competitors to change majors once they begin working more closely with robotics design and software programming, Currier said.
“Very often, when I bring elements of a competition into the classroom, I find that some of the students become more engaged with the assignment and then go and get involved in the competition, becoming major contributors on the competition side,” Currier said. “You see a lot of students who get engaged with the curriculum that way.”