We've heard a lot about the decline of engineering education in the United States, and our profession in general. It's hard not to get discouraged or even depressed at how engineering—and the education which sustains it—has become devalued and diminished in the view of the public. Programs such as STEM Education Coalition and U.S. FIRST are making some progress in changing that situation, but there's a long way to go, and it's hard to compete with all those celebrities saturating our media and mental bandwidth (see here and here).
But I have good news, too. This year, I was again asked to be a judge for the Texas Instruments Engibous Prize Analog Design Contest (named in honor of Thomas Engibous, the recently retired Chairman of Texas Instruments) where university teams plan, design, execute, and document advanced, innovative projects. [Note: one of the entry requirements is that the design must use at least three TI parts—two of them analog—but in practice, this is not much of a restriction at all.]
In short: I was very impressed, again (and you can read my story on the 2009 Engibous Award here, BTW). Each of the top-tier teams I judged did work ranging from very good to outstanding, in all critical aspects. The ten finalists came up with interesting, clever, and even useful applications, and then executed the complete project.
One other thing that impressed me was the documentation. We all know first-hand that "writing skills" have declined significantly in the past decade—and engineers supposedly never had them, anyway (a complete myth, IMO). I was afraid that the detailed project write-ups (typically 60-100 pages) would be full of sloppy sentences, slang, incoherent abbreviations, and even some text-message-like statements (such as DNT TXT N DRV, or C U LTR).
So I am very happy to tell you, I was quite wrong. Each report was well organized, properly structured, with appropriate chapters and sections, using complete sentences, paragraphs which expressed fully formed thoughts, appendix sections, and no sloppiness or typographical errors (OK, I did see a few—but just only a few).
Below is a summary of the three top-prize winners, provided by TI and the winning teams. If you want to read the full reports of these three teams (and the poster-session winner), or see short videos of all ten finalist teams, check out the Texas Instruments page on the contest and prize, here.
- 1st-Place: University of Cincinnati—Remotely Accessible Target System
"The Remotely Accessible Target System (RATS) is a total package that allows marksmen to enjoy a safer, more leisurely shooting experience. The main objective of the system is to eliminate the dangerous act of walking down range to change and/or view a target. This system also saves time by eliminating the need to manually change paper targets as well as by performing analysis and calculations in milliseconds that would take the average shooter several minutes."
"At the site of the target, there is a small digital camera, a microcontroller, the target advance mechanism, and a Bluetooth transceiver. At the site of the shooter, there is a Bluetooth-enabled laptop, which is running our custom application. The combination of the microcontroller and PC command the entire operation."
- 2nd Place: University of Arizona—Solar Car Power Monitoring System
"Our team designed a system to monitor the power usage of the UA Solar Car to support an effort to improve the electrical and mechanical efficiency of the vehicle. Two standalone systems were developed: An alignment fixture to evaluate the mechanical aspect of rolling resistance through means of wheel alignment, and an electrical monitoring system to evaluate the power system of the vehicle."
"To accomplish this mission, both electrical and mechanical systems were analyzed. Electrical systems considered in the design were the solar arrays, batteries, motor performance (both consuming and regenerating), and onboard electronics. Collection of the electrical data was achieved through a real-time telemetry system with a goal of minimal power consumption from the monitoring system components. Mechanical aspects considered were vehicle mechanical efficiency of the rolling resistance through evaluation of alignment, applied horsepower and torque though evaluation of gear ratios, and vehicle speed monitoring."
- 3rd Place: Rice University—3-D Modeling Turntable
"3-D model creation is an emerging technology that is used for architect renderings and video game development. We present a system that can automatically create faithful digital 3-D models from real-life objects. Our objective was to create a low-cost, easy-to-use system that can accurately model 3-D objects. We achieved this through the creation of our 3-D Modeling Turntable (3DMT). Using a silhouetting algorithm and a computer-interfaced turntable, we were able to successfully capture the volumetric likeness of a large variety of real-life, 3-D objects."
"We met our initial design criteria, creating a solution that costs less than $250 in materials, provides 3D models with a volumetric accuracy of over 90%, and provides an easy-to-use interface. Capturing data for generating a 3-D model takes under 5 minutes. While generating the 3-D model can take anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, depending on the desired 3-D resolution, it is important to note that this is not the user's time, but the computer's time. Several models can be run overnight if high resolutions are required for a particular project."
So maybe there is still hope, at least among this segment of our educational system.—Bill Schweber