Most of the successful engineers I know share one common skill: They are very good at succeeding when they fail. I suspect this is a skill that successful engineers across many disciplines share. Whether someone is building a bridge, an airplane wing or a smartphone app, he or she has likely failed often and used that information to improve the design each time. At ANSYS, we strive to help engineers create better products by allowing designers to fail early and often. With each iteration, the design improves until a safe, useful and profitable product is ready for delivery. This ability comes directly from experience, so how can we give young engineers a head start?
One avenue is BEST Robotics, a nationwide competition in which high school and middle school students build and demonstrate a human-controlled robot that must perform specific tasks. Funding is provided entirely through sponsors, so schools participate at no cost to them. BEST involves many aspects of real-world product development:
- Design, construction and operation of a robot
- Marketing presentation
- Trade show-style booth construction
- Technical writing
Students are constrained both by time (six weeks) and resources (a list of parts), requiring them to continually make trade-offs as they modify their designs.
The national competition is divided into local hubs in which teams gather to compete head-to-head. ANSYS has been a premier sponsor of the Wolverine BEST Hub at Grove City College for the past three years.
As a BEST mentor with a local high school, I’ve been inspired by watching the students learn from failures on a daily basis and evolve their designs. The problem-solving skills and innovative solutions these students demonstrate never cease to amaze me. While classroom instruction is certainly necessary and useful, the lessons students learn from hands-on engineering challenges like BEST cannot be understated.
When I first met with these students three years ago, I remember watching their eyes widen as I explained that they should plan for their initial designs and implementations to be 100 percent wrong. Now that they are seasoned veterans of BEST, the students calmly and effectively modified their robot in the face of problems on the day of the competition. I wish that I could have been a part of an event like this, and I hope that my children will one day have the wonderful opportunity to learn the art of building success from failures.
UPDATE: December 3, 2012
I’m pleased to report that the team from Cornerstone won the overall BEST competition at the regional finals held at Auburn University this weekend. Although the team did not win any individual category, they did very well in all categories, and defeated 56 other teams from the east and south regions to win the top award in the competition.