EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge represents a successful implementation of real-world, project-based learning that inspires engineering students to extend their knowledge of advanced vehicle technologies. Student veterans of the competition are highly sought after in the job market because they can be productive on the job from day one.
While participating in the competition, students and sponsors are frequently asked by the media surrounding the EcoCAR competition if the university teams have developed anything the corporate headline sponsor, General Motors, can use in the development of their future vehicles. While the answer is definitely yes, these developments have nothing do with the vehicles. Future automotive design engineers are EcoCAR’s primary end-product.
The competition has been actively developing the next generation of engineers capable of immediately contributing to the design and development of advanced technology mobility solutions needed in the marketplace today, moving toward removing the automobile from the energy debate.
The competition’s blog, Inside the Green Garage, profiles a variety of EcoCAR veterans who have graduated to careers in alternative energy automotive engineering on the strength of their EcoCAR experiences. The job successes of these students, who often receive multiple offers, even during the recent downturn in the automotive industry, can be attributed in part to EcoCAR’s project-based learning platform.
As EcoCAR team members:
- Students work in groups to achieve project objectives. They learn to deal with the consequences of their choices.
- Students must develop project-management skills and interpersonal skills to successfully realize the complex systems under consideration.
- Students tackle the same technical issues—under the same budgetary, time, and resource constraints—as professional engineers. They apply their choices and learning to tests on real vehicles, using the same test tracks and chassis dynamometers that GM uses for design tests. Automobile emissions, performance, and fuel economy are tested using the same procedures as production vehicles.
- The technology is both advanced, which attracts motivated students, and closely aligned with classroom theory.
- Students must communicate results in both written and verbal to peers, sponsors, and organizers. This experience develops the skills required to communicate, evaluate, and refine ideas.
Members from the University of Waterloo (Canada) Alternative Fuels team get to work at the 2010 Fall Workshop held at MathWorks in October 2010.
Each team’s performance is assessed within the rules and objectives framework established by the headline sponsors and organizers: The U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory, and GM. The possible solutions to these challenges are many and can be quite complicated—just like the real-world.
Project-based learning with Model-Based Design
helps the teams evaluate design tradeoffs. The methodology engages students in practical application of the theoretical concepts, a skill that is often lacking in students. For example, electrical engineering students, when asked if the light bulbs in their home are wired up in series or parallel, can certainly draw a circuit diagram and derive the equations that define the various voltages and currents in the circuit, but often cannot answer the question correctly. (Of course, the bulbs are wired in parallel.) This is a trivial example, but extend the analogy a bit to EcoCAR students who can explain not only the why behind this but can also detail how to wire up the circuit breaker box, analyze the power flow from the coal burning plant, and how the turbine generators generate electricity in that plant!
At lunch during the EcoCAR fall workshop last year, one engineering student was sharing with a peer that technicians at her university fabrication shop had initially refused to build her battery-pack cooling system design. They rejected her design because they (more experienced engineers) believed it would not work as intended.
This scenario is typical for entry-level engineers in the automotive industry. New engineers quickly learn that all the theory in the world won’t help them realize actual designs if 1) they can’t prove that the design is practical and functional and 2) if they don’t have the interpersonal skills to work within a team—from technician to executives; administration to engineering.
In this particular case, the engineering student was confident she was right and the design would perform as intended because of the countless number of design iterations that she had built and simulated using mathematical models built in Simulink
. Similar to state of the art Model-Based Design processes employed by the industry, she modeled the mechanical design using a CAD system and had her team review it. She persevered and worked side-by-side with the technicians, built the system and proved that it would work.
For an educator, this is a dream scenario: A student can enter the work force with tested, practical experience under her belt. Her peers entering the workforce without this kind of experience have a lot of catching up to do.