With its victory in July’s American Solar Challenge attracting national attention, the UMR Solar Car Team may be UMR’s most visible student design team these days. But it isn’t the only one enjoying success in national and international competitions. Over the past year, UMR teams have won competitions with human-powered vehicles, radio-controlled airplanes and old-fashioned mining techniques.
On the same weekend in early May 2003, two of those teams — the UMR Human-Powered Vehicle Team and the Advanced Aero Vehicle Group — won national and international championships. For the Human-Powered Vehicle Team, it was a repeat of their 2002 national title. Also in May, two other teams — one that builds a steel bridge under time and design constraints, and another that builds a concrete canoe that actually floats — finished in second place in regional competitions. And in April, a team of female mining engineering students won the annual Intercollegiate Mining Competition, a test of brawn and stamina that requires competitors to use old-fashioned mining techniques — from gold-panning and hand-steeling to shoveling slimy wet gravel, or "muck," into a rail car — in timed events.
These winning ways are a hallmark of UMR’s focus on practical, hands-on engineering. More than 200 UMR students are involved in 16 different design teams on campus. UMR’s emphasis on student design competitions as an extracurricular activity and teaching tool is unique among the nation’s engineering schools, says UMR Chancellor Gary Thomas, and reflects the campus’s commitment to providing students with "opportunities for real-world, hands-on and team-oriented situations that will prepare them to become leaders in the engineering work force of the future."
"By participating in a student design team, students learn a lot of things they won’t get in the classroom," Thomas says. "They’re learning how to solve real-life engineering and business problems — everything from designing the most aerodynamic vehicle possible at the least cost to raising their own financial support."
The student designers back up the chancellor’s assertion. "Our team makeup helps the AAVG (Advanced Aero Vehicle Group) to stand out," says Chris Keithley, a member of the AAVG, which won the Society of Automotive Engineers’ 2003 Aero Design East Competition.
The UMR team’s winning aircraft, a 35-pound radio-controlled model, lifted twice its weight — 70 pounds of cargo — to win the event. Keithley attributes his team’s success to a tradition of passing knowledge from the group’s elders to its newcomers. "The team is made up of a mix of students — from freshmen to graduate students," he says. "We add new members yearly, which allows information from the veterans of the group to be passed down from year to year. Building upon the strengths of previous years allows the group to create a better aircraft by learning from what worked and what didn’t."
Other teams also adopt this incremental approach. "Our team has matured over the past few years," says Robert Stone, assistant professor of basic engineering and the Human-Powered Vehicle Team’s advisor. "Since their second-place showing in 2001, they have really been able to build on the previous year’s design knowledge and make significant advances."
While the end-product — be it a car, a canoe or an airplane — is the most tangible aspect of a design team’s work, students involved in these projects gain valuable experience that will serve them in their future careers. They learn public relations and fund-raising skills, for example, as well as management and organizational skills that will prove valuable in their careers. Most teams also must prepare written reports and deliver oral presentations describing their design processes. It all adds up to a positive experience for the students involved — even those who may be a bit out of their fields of expertise. "I like the fact that I can do some hands-on work and then get to actually see what I helped build perform so well," says Jamie Ferrero, a member of the 2003 Human-Powered Vehicle Team who earned her degree in nuclear engineering in May 2003. "As a nuclear engineer interested in design, that is something I don’t generally get to do."