Student Contests Yield Big Winners

Student Contests Yield Big Winners

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Hitting the books is the time-honored pathway to a good job, but college students might be well advised to have a little fun by participating in some contests. Hiring managers often find that it’s easier to winnow their candidate pool by seeing what students learn in competitions and other multi-disciplinary projects.

Looking for an IEEE competition for Student members?

IEEEXtreme is a global challenge in which teams of IEEE Student members-advised and proctored by an IEEE member, and often supported by an IEEE Student Branch-compete in a 24-hour time span against each other to solve a set of programming problems.

National contests force technologists from many disciplines to work together to build cars, robots and other complex systems. This interdisciplinary work can closely resemble commercial and industrial programs while also imposing deadlines and funding requirements that can be stricter than those for classroom projects. Many managers put a lot of credence on participation.

“I’d rather hire someone with a 3.0 grade point average who has experience than someone with a 3.9 GPA without practical experience,” said Tim Proctor, technical leader for heavy duty engineering at Cummins. “In these contests, students have to balance many factors in complex problems and arrive at a satisfactory solution. They deal with the constraints of budgets and timeframes.”

Employers say that national or regional contests help young engineers better understand the multi-faceted nature of next generation commercial aircraft, automobiles and robotics. These systems combine electrical and mechanical components with embedded computing. That’s changed the way engineering teams interact.

“With the increasing complexity of these systems, we can no longer rely on a sequential design process where the mechanical engineer, the electrical engineer and the programmer work in isolation,” said Andy Bell, National Instruments’ director of academic programs. “Today’s engineers need to work collaboratively with deep understanding of the system-level integration. These competitions necessitate teams of students to work across disciplines, applications and team member expertise.”

Most employers want to hire graduates who can contribute quickly. New graduates often see shorter training periods than in years passed, even though design challenges have become more complex, while development timelines have been compressed. Participation in extracurricular projects can give applicants an edge.

“Students who participate in competitions like the Dept. of Energy’s EcoCar or the Formula SAE often have a more practical understanding of the balance between timing, cost and the technical solution,” said Chris Hennessy, vice president, powertrain engineering, at IAV Automotive Engineering Inc. “These competitions provide the necessary structure so students understand that true innovation is only viable with a pragmatic approach to problem solving, and an understanding that the technical solution is not the only factor necessary to bring products to market.”

Most engineering programs have evolved to include at least one multi-discipline project during the students’ coursework. Hiring managers note that many of them are fairly simplistic compared to the challenges of national or international competitions. However, that’s not always true.

“Our senior design projects are industrially sponsored,” said Vincent Manno, Provost at the Olin College of Engineering. “They’re not made up problems; sponsors like Boeing and Boston Scientific provide funding, $55,000, and provide a mentor.”

Most universities can’t command that type of corporate support, making the national competitions more valuable. Corporations often provide financial backing and encourage workers to join in the effort.

Trial by Fire

Contests often test the mettle of even the most battle-tested competitors. Take the Shell EcoCar Marathon, where student teams from around the world design, build and drive ultra-energy-efficient vehicles. A team from the Technical University of Denmark eventually broke a fuel efficiency record, achieving over 1,500 mpg. But that accomplishment didn’t come easily.

“Two days before the competition in Amsterdam, their entire system caught fire,” Bell said. “They then had to find the salvageable hardware, take it apart to clean it, and then completely rebuild their system in time for the competition. I don’t know of any in-class projects that could have replicated that real-life engineering experience.”

Involvement in projects can often be more exciting than reading textbooks and studying for exams. The projects are designed to attract the attention of people with an interest in technology. That can be a siren’s song that lures many students to spend many hours on these extracurricular activities.

“There were definitely times when I would do Hyperloop work instead of doing homework that was arguably more important,” said Kyle Weiskircher, a University of Illinois student who participated in the SpaceX Hyperloop challenge. “During the summer, it was the only thing I was doing so it took up all of my time, as well as at least half of the other build team members’ time.”

However, he noted that during the school year, he only spent a few hours per week on the design challenge: devising ways to rapidly transport passengers and goods in capsules which are propelled through tubes by linear induction motors and air compressors. That’s partially because it was not a primary activity for him, in contrast so students who did the challenge for their senior design project. They probably spent at least 10-15 hours a week on it, though that often fluctuated, he estimated.

That brings self control into the mix. Students must balance the many interests that vie for their time during their collegiate careers. Professors often monitor students as sort of a back stop for contestants who get carried away by their projects. Generally, instructors don’t step in unless it’s clear that a student is spiraling into a dangerous zone.

“We do see a number of students doing these contests almost as an apprenticeship,” Manno said. “It’s a time management issue, it’s an individual responsibility. That said, we won’t watch students crash and burn.”

Some corporate managers note that while projects can be more important than GPAs, good grades can still open doors. Many managers feel that students who effectively juggle commitments will continue to use those skills when they’re employed and must balance hobbies, families and other non-work activities.

“It will never hinder a student to be involved in contests/organizations, etc.,” said Kaly Etten, Leader of University Relations Team and Strategies at Rockwell Collins. “With that, we do want to ensure that GPA is not negatively impacted because a student is stretched too thin by commitments.”

Some managers are leery of students who seem to have been involved in too many projects while they’re in college. There’s a huge difference between those who actually participated on the project and those who showed up barely more than was necessary to say they participated.

“It’s good to be cautious of people with too many activities. That can be done to pad their resume,” said Jerry Gipper, executive director of VITA, an embedded systems standards group. “The responses to questions about projects give a better view of what people learned than their GPAs or their list of projects.”

Being able to tell interviewers about the real lessons learned is critical. Discussing the thought-provoking aspects of designing a vehicle, robot or other complex device can be the type of thing that really gives an interviewer insight into how the job candidate solves problems. Some lucky ” and skilled ” students use their experience to get their dream job.

“Most of our students get jobs. Participation in projects often helps them get the jobs they really want,” Manno said.

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