It seems like you can’t open a local newspaper these days without reading about a high school robotics team entering and winning a competition.
Item: A group of nine high school students from the east side of the Big Island in Hawaii flew to Nagoya, Japan in November to compete with students from four high schools and 19 universities in a contest called the Micro Robot Maze.
Item: In Abu Dhabi, students at the Al-Mawaheb Model School participated in a robotics competition, the winners of which were slated to represent the United Arab Emirates in the World Robot Olympiad, an international robotics event that was held in Yokoyama earlier in November.
Item: The robotics team at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, Calif., incorporated robotics into a haunted house they created for Halloween. (Disclosure: I attended Gunn, but there was no robotics team at the time.) Among the elements: disembodied hands that stirred cauldrons and smashed through boxes. Sometimes it’s not even high school students. A robotics consultant in Wisconsin named Jack Burrus has started giving hour-long robotics presentations to elementary school children to spark their interest in the scientific future.
These programs run contrary to ongoing concerns within the industry regarding students’ lack of interest in studying math and science, with fears that a diminished number of engineers will graduate in the future. Last year, in fact, the American Society of Engineering Education reported a 1.2% decline in engineering degrees in 2007, after seven years of growth. But with the proliferation of these robotics teams — and robotics encompassing much of the same precepts as mechatronics and systems engineering — perhaps the future is not so grim. The high level of interest in robotics now may very well translate into a welcome bulge of engineers later.
“The engineers of 2020 are in high school now, and we need to start training them,” says Anu Saha, academic product manager for robotics and controls at National Instruments, whose company offers in-kind and financial support to several robotics competitions. “These competitions help them demonstrate scientific and engineering concepts, and encourage them to participate [in more robotics-oriented activities].” He likens the high school programs to parents slipping vitamins into sweets.
“When a kid looks at a robot, he sees something cool. He’s not thinking it’s an ARM microprocessor controlling sensors and actuators to move the arms,” says Saha, adding that that’s the best approach to not only get more kids excited, but to help explain the concepts of mechatronics. “Mechatronics is system-level design, so the kids first understand the application as a whole, before they delve into the relevant pieces of technology.” Kevin Craig, a professor of mechanical engineering at Marquette University, agrees that these programs signal a more promising future for mechatronics, but he still expresses some concern.
He worries that “all these robotics activities lead students to think that engineering is just about coming up with some neat ideas, then building something, and hopefully making it work.” That’s not the way engineering works at all, he continues. “Customers don’t come to you and say, build this. They come to you with a problem that may have 20 different solutions, and engineers have to come up with the answer based on the best solutions from technology, business, and the human point-of-view. That’s where innovation happens.
”Still, Craig acknowledges that such programs are a good start, and he’s seeing increased interest in his program at Marquette. Are they having an immediate impact? National Instruments’ Saha isn’t aware of specific statistics regarding what an influx of robotics-oriented high school students might mean, but he notes that of the top 50 universities National Instruments targets for graduates, almost all of them now have courses relating to mechatronics or robotics.
“They may not be offering degrees, but they have courses, and that’s a decided change from five years ago,” he says. So for those companies who are worrying about where they’re going to find mechatronics engineers in the next few years, have some patience. They’re on their way.
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