Across the world, in all of the best undergraduate engineering programs, students at some point face a different class than others. This is the Engineering Design class, through which, rather than testing them as individuals on mastery of lectures and texts, the class is challenged to work as a team to design a complex engineering system capable of meeting a challenging set of requirements.
For example, the Aeronautical Engineering class might be tasked with designing a new, high-performance, low-cost combat aircraft, with capabilities for speed, range, ceiling, maneuverability, weaponry, survivability, and productivity that all exceed specified minimums. Typically, the class may then be divided into subgroups, with each assigned to find the best solutions for critical areas, such as aerodynamics, propulsion, weapons, structures, and cost.
Inevitably, the best solutions in each area are at odds with the rest. For example, more powerful engines will maximize an aircraft’s speed, but remove mass that could be used for more weapons or stronger structures, and improving anything always leads to higher costs. So deals have to be done to try and find a compromise that will hopefully allow the best aircraft overall. It’s a very creative process, sometimes intensified further by having classes from different universities all working on the same design problem, and their designs competing against each other in intercollegiate tournaments.
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Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of the Pioneer Astronautics and Mars Society. His latest book, “The Case for Space” (Opens in a new tab)Recently published by Prometheus Books. Robert invented propulsion and exploration technologies in space, authored more than 200 technical papers, and was a member of Lockheed Martin’s ‘Scenario Development Team’ tasked with producing new strategies for space exploration.
I graduated from college with a BA in Applied Mathematics, and taught high school science and mathematics for several years before returning to graduate school to become an engineer. As a result, I didn’t even take an engineering design class after, after I was a teacher. When I did, it immediately amazed me that engineering design classes can provide a great methodology for teaching science in high schools as well.
I haven’t done anything about it for four decades, but this summer I used my position as president of the Mars Society to try out the idea. So in April, we made a public announcement that this summer the Mars Society would be offering a class and competition to design a six-week Mars mission, open to students anywhere in the world. We’ve set an entry fee of $50, low enough to make it affordable for just about anyone, but high enough to keep exploiters away.
Everything will be done by zooming in, making the site irrelevant, but the teams have been organized roughly by time zone, to facilitate team collaboration. Forty students registered, which were divided into five teams. The first team was from Europe and the Middle East, of which the largest squad was from Poland. Team 2 was from India and East Asia. Bands 3, 5, and 6 were from the western, eastern, and central North American time zone, respectively. (Team 4 was unsuccessful, so its members split over the rest.)
The lesson began with two weeks of lectures from twelve different experts who specialize in different aspects of Mars mission design, ranging from astrobiology and geology to life support and nuclear engineering. This was to provide basic knowledge. However, we did not try to coordinate the messages sent by every expert in the party line. Some of the views and readings suggested by the lecturers were frankly contradictory. But this is the case in the real world. It was up to the students to decide what made the most sense.
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Then with this background knowledge in hand, the design teams got to work. The problem that was given to them was to design a human mission to Mars with the greatest scientific return possible assuming a transportation system capable of delivering up to 30 metric tons and a crew of six to the surface of Mars. It was up to the teams to determine the landing site, science objectives, crew size, skills, equipment and length of stay, with up to 18 months allowed. Then they had to design their exploration plan and all their equipment accordingly.
As with any good design problem, these requirements are in conflict with each other. For example, for the first class, a larger crew with the longest possible stay on Mars is maximizing the mission’s exploration capacity. But the consumables and accommodations required to support it take up mass that can be used for more extensive equipment, for example pressurized vehicles or guided helicopters that can significantly expand the crew’s effective expedition range.
The design challenge specifically excluded consideration of the interplanetary exploration system. The latter is a NASA obsession, excluding the mission’s scientific objective. That’s why the designs for the space agency’s human Mars mission — which include 30-day surface stays geared toward areas of less scientific interest — are so silly. But there’s no point in going to Mars unless you can do something useful when you get there. The purpose of the mission should come first, with mission designs and systems following.
The students took up this challenge with enthusiasm, spending three weeks working hard on their teams, with minimal guidance from coaches assigned to each team, to develop and write their designs.
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Then came the three-day shootout. On the first day, each team had 30 minutes to present their designs to a panel of expert judges. This is how engineering design competitions in colleges are usually conducted. But then we go on a tour. Each team was given 30 minutes on day two to shred their opponents’ designs. Then we had the third day where each team had the opportunity to defend their resolve against attacks from the rest.
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This last measure is unusual in university engineering design competitions. But it does get close to how things happen in the real world. In the real world, when you propose a design solution to a NASA mission or technology need, you have competitors trying to knock you down. (Believe me on this. I know). The process of attacking and defending in our competition was a little more civilized than that between competitors in the free market, because in our competition the antagonistic critics had to make their attacks public, rather than behind the backs of their targets. But nevertheless, the resulting intellectual dust allowed the kids to invoke their competitive instincts, and they loved it.
The results were amazing. All teams provided work that was well above the high school level. You don’t need to take my words seriously. full course (Opens in a new tab)including videos of expert lectures, demonstrations of team design, attacks and defenses can be viewed online (Opens in a new tab).
Of course, not everyone can win. The US East Coast team took the top prize in science, the US-Western team won decisively in engineering, the Asian team took the Human Factors Design award, and the Europeans—who thought creatively about how to reduce overall program expenditures by generating income—ran away with the prize from where the cost. Despite winning only one category, the Asian team also ranked well in most of the other teams, thus winning the competition overall.
I think what happened in this category deserves wide attention. Its value goes beyond the course’s direct impact on a small group of students (and hopefully design a NASA Mars mission!) that has the potential to make educational history. Engineering design differs from traditional classes not only by requiring students to master certain material for the test, but to put their knowledge into practice by working as a team to design a complex engineering system. By doing so, it reflects students’ traditional relationship to scientific knowledge. Instead of knowledge being a burden (“How much of this do we need to know for a test?”) it becomes a tool, or even a magic sword if you like (“There has to be a better way to do this. We need to find it!”)
By performing as they did, the students showed that the same creative methodology could be introduced into high schools. Moreover, they demonstrated the value of debate. In real life, design engineering is a communication sport. As well as pure science in this regard. Consider the hype over recent claims about the bio-fingerprints in Venus’s atmosphere, the 1996 Allan Hills meteorite claims, or the results of the Viking life-discovery experiments conducted on Mars in 1976. The science has never been compromised. Scientists and engineers must be able to defend their ideas. To give students a chance to learn how science really works its way forward, they should be given a chance to mix it up themselves.
So, if you have time, please take a look and see how it goes. The kids had a blast, and the results were great. We will definitely do that again.
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