24 June 2020

How competition makes engineering exciting

By Dr Muhammad Rafiq Mirza bin Julaihi

Engaging students in the technical aspects of engineering and science is a challenging task. One of the ways to better involve students in this aspect of study is to encourage them to enter engineering competitions that challenge them to solve real-world problems with practical solutions.

In Malaysia, there are notable engineering competitions held annually at university level such as Innovate Malaysia Design Competition, IEEE Malaysia FYP Competition, IEM Design Competition, Ericsson Hack for Good, James Dyson Award (JDA), and Shell Eco Marathon (SEM) to name a few. These competitions generally aim to provide a platform for university students to nurture both their technical and soft skills, gain knowledge and insights on current and future industry trends, as well as create networking opportunity with fellow students and industry representatives from other states or countries.

Furthermore, such competitions also allow student participants to explore opportunities for internship placements or training programmes. In some cases, where students are fully sponsored to compete at the international level, it possibly offers them the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can only be experienced by entering such competition.

As a mechanical engineering lecturer at Swinburne, I have been involved in mentoring students for competitions since early 2019. One of the competitions won by our students is the Shell Design Challenge organised as part of the Innovate Malaysia Design Competition 2019. Utilising engineering tools such as 3D printing, composites manufacturing, CAD/CAM, and computational fluid dynamics, the Swinburne team designed and built a small scale model of a Formula Student racing car that was inspired by nature.

What motivates students to take part in competitions and what are the benefits gained?

Firstly, students are always eager to see the results of their work, sometimes, to the point of being impatient and losing interest because the preparations seem like an endless task. However, having a clear deadline such as for proposal submission and competition day itself can help students maintain their motivation, and at the same time, they are able to appreciate the time taken to complete it. They will understand that engineering takes time.

Furthermore, it trains students to work as a team and completing a task under pressure, on top of exposing them to subjects that are not typically taught in classrooms such as project management and finance.

Secondly, the networking opportunity enables students and professionals alike to exchange ideas and viewpoints. For example, at the Shell Eco-Marathon Asia (SEMA) 2019 Access event held at the Sepang Circuit which I attended, team managers were asked to share their experience in project management with event sponsors and government agencies. Apart from that, as student teams need sponsorship to fund their projects, it requires them to meet and speak to potential sponsors and at the same time, gain knowledge on financial related matters and the technical know-how.

The networking link between students and the industry is vital because the industry is dynamic and students must be able to adapt. Engineering competitions organised by industry players would likely have an attractive internship scheme opportunity that would attract talented students to join their organisations. This is a win-win situation for both parties as students can include this experience on their resume and increase their chances of securing jobs in future. 

My third and final point relates to transforming ideas into reality. Every student entering a competition has an idea they want to present and eventually materialise. In order for the ideas to translate into reality, students need a place such as a competition to put theory to the test. At the same time, students are able to obtain feedback from their peers and judges to better improve their idea, concept and product.

Quoting the late Colin McRae, winner of the 1996 World Rally Championship, “You’re here for a good time, not a long time.”

A four-year undergraduate degree is the time for students to learn new knowledge, build professional network, obtain work experience and in between those responsibilities, enjoy their lives. Take the chance to enter engineering competitions as there are a variety of modern engineering tools available at the universities for students to utilise. I highly encourage students to take on new challenges and uncover their talents, make new friends and hopefully create a more meaningful university life.

Dr Muhammad Rafiq Mirza bin Julaihi is a lecturer from the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at mjulaihi@swinburne.edu.my.