Join an Engineering Team

This is part two of my three part series on “Tips for electrical engineering students.”  Now that my summer vacation is over, I will hopefully be posting on a more regular schedule (i.e. monthly).

Why Join a Team?

Gaining experience working as part of an engineering team is vital to your career.  Some people may prefer to work alone, but even if this is the case, at some point in your career (probably more often than not) you will have to work as part of a team.  It is very much the exception rather than the norm that an engineer is allowed to work completely independently on a project that is of significant size or complexity.

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to join an engineering team at most colleges/universities.  Professors often assign group projects for classes; but unfortunately from my experience, these teams can often be rather dysfunctional.  I’ve found that typical the reason for the ineffectiveness of a team for a class project stems from a lack of team member motivation.  This is not to say that there aren’t effective and motivated teams for class projects, but it can often be hard to get a group of students motivated about a project for a class that the students don’t particularly care for.  Nevertheless, even being part of a dysfunctional team can be an educational experience.

Joining a team that you are genuinely interested in and passionate about, outside of class can provide a much more enjoyable and also educational experience.  Most schools have several student teams that compete in various national or international competitions.  Some examples student design competitions are: Formula SAE, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, SAE Advanced Aero Design, ASCE’s concrete canoe, Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, and Engineers Without Borders.  These are just a few examples.

My Experience

During my years as an undergrad I was part of the Missouri S&T Formula SAE Team.  During my time on the team I learned how to use a mill and a lathe to machine various parts for the car, how to design a circuit board, how to troubleshoot a race car’s electrical system, how to work with data acquisition systems, and the invaluable experience of learning how to work with other engineers.

Missouri S&T Formual SAE Car Number 8/2

The 2009 Missouri S&T Formula SAE Car which placed first at the 2009 Formula SAE VIR event.

The first circuit board I ever designed was the dashboard for the for the 2006 car; it was a disaster.  All the circuit had to do was interface to a few switches, and have a few LEDs for warning the driver.  By the time that circuit became somewhat functional, the enclosure was full of jumper wires, several traces were cut, and the microcontroller had to be removed.  Needless to say, I learned a lot from the experience.  Since then I have designed or worked on the design of over a dozen circuit boards ranging from simple 2-layer PCBs to 10-layer monstrosities with 150+ parts (making the bill of materials for that was not fun).

On the Formula SAE Team I not only learned how to design electronics, but also how to be a well rounded engineer.  I had to evaluate various designs to evaluate which one would be the lightest, cheapest, and most reliable.  I had to learn to defend my design decisions and gather data to support those decisions.  I also learned how to work with people as a team.  There were often disagreements between the electrical group (which I was a part of) and the rest of the team, which was composed primarily of mechanical engineers.  Sometimes we were wrong, and failed to take into consideration the physical constraints that our electrical system had to be built to; other times they failed to understand how sensitive electronics can often be (“You mean I should remove everything electrical before welding on the frame?”).  Looking back on my four years on the team, I can see how far we came, and how much I learned along the way.

One of the most important aspect of being on a team is learning from others.  My first year on the team, I knew close to nothing about how a race car is actually built.  I didn’t know how to use a mill or a lathe, or how to design a circuit board.  These are all things I learned from the more experienced members on the team.  If I was finished with my assigned task, I would watch what others were working, and they would often be more than happy to explain what they were doing and why.  If a part needed to be machined, I would ask one of the more experienced members for a quick explanation of what needed to be done and how, and I would get to work on it.  Yes I made mistakes, but I learned from them.  If you don’t start anything for fear of making a mistake, you’ll never finish anything either.  Also, don’t ever be afraid to ask questions, in fact, ask lots of questions!

During my third year as an undergraduate, I was also the team leader of the Missouri S&T UAV Team which placed 2nd at the 2008 UAV Challenge Outback Rescue.  That was probably one of the most challenging experiences of my undergraduate career.  Not even mentioning the sheer complexity of UAVs, but the fact that it’s an aircraft means that it can crash.  Badly.  Yes, ground robots can crash too, but their crashes usually aren’t as spectacular and expensive as UAV crashes can be.  Unfortunately we had more than our fair share of crashes, which were very demoralizing.  As difficult as it was, we did eventually make it to the competition and placed 2nd overall; but it was a very difficult journey to get there.

The 2008 Missouri S&T UAV in the paddocks at competition.

The UAV with electronics oozing out of it at competition.

From my experience as part of a team I learned not only how to work together with others to achieve a common goal, but also how to be a better engineer.  As part of a team you are forced to learn how to communicate effectively, how to defend your ideas, and how to compromise.  Often it can be hard for engineers to let go of their ideas and admit that somebody else has a better solution, and unfortunately engineers are stubborn and will often stick with their idea regardless of its merits (or lack thereof), this is also known as not invented here syndrome.

To summarize:

  1. Join a team.
  2. Learn how to do more than just your assigned task, see what others are doing and learn from them.
  3. Ask questions.
  4. Work hard.
  5. And don’t forget to have fun!
Sep 2011
POSTED IN Engineering Teamwork

Tips for electrical engineering students

The purpose of this post is to offer some encouragement and suggestions for electrical engineering students; these are some of the things I wish I had known and dedicated more time to during school.  Although no matter where you are in your career, I hope you’ll find post helpful, if not, let me know how I can improve it!

In an attempt to keep it simple, I’m going to break it down into three separate topics, upon which I will expand in subsequent posts.

  • Tinkering
  • Joining a Team
  • Networking

It should be no surprise that all these three areas are often intertwined; nevertheless, I will consider these three topics individually.


Growing up, I remember having two key characteristics: a continual curiosity, and a love for building things.  I was always wanting to know how various things work, and why; I loved playing with LEGO and building random contraptions I came up with from scraps around the house.  I believe this is one of the reasons I became an engineer, because I want to know how and why things work.  Although having this curiosity early on is not the defining factor for becoming an engineer, it is certainly a trait that should be encouraged and practiced, especially by those in the field of engineering and science.  As cliche as it sounds, continual learning is vital to success as an engineer.

This curiosity and love for building things doesn’t always come naturally, and if you don’t feel like you posses these traits, don’t be discouraged!  These characteristics can be developed.  Let’s now define what I mean by tinkering.  The dictionary definition of the verb “tinker” is:

tin-ker |ˈti ng kər|

verb [ intrans. ]
attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory (lacking a plan or purpose) way

While I agree with the dictionary definition, I would however also add that tinkering (according to my definition) involves building things; not just “attempting” to repair or improve something.  So what does this mean for an (electrical) engineer?  It means that you should build stuff!

Resistor Cube

A resitor cube that I made one afternoon, just because it looked cool.

But don’t stop there, also take things apart.  Even today, I love taking things apart.  Whenever something breaks, especially if it’s something electrical (the more complex the better) I love to take it apart in an attempt to identify the root cause of the failure.  I also enjoy seeing how different things are designed.  It’s interesting to look at how other engineers laid out their circuit boards, what ICs they used, what design choices were made.  Sometimes even when things aren’t broken, I will disassemble a device just out of sheer curiosity.  Unfortunately, when it comes time to put things back together, sometimes I have parts left over; but I like to console myself with the fact that I was able to improve on the design by using fewer parts to reassemble it.

For those that have never built a circuit on their own, it may seem like a daunting task.  How do I know what to connect where?  Will I electrocute myself?  Although I am writing this primarily for (electrical) engineers who should ideally know basic circuit theory, even non-engineers can have fun learning about electronics and circuits.  If you don’t already, you should get a basic understanding of circuits (i.e. resistance, capacitance, inductance).  For those that are completely new to circuits, have a look here, for those with some basic intuition and mathematical background, Wikipedia is a great resource.

Every electrical engineer should be able to…

Disclaimer: This is merely my opinion, and this is by no means a comprehensive list.  Let me know if you think there is something I left out.

Circuit Design

  • Read a datasheet and understand how to use a part
  • Design a circuit schematic
  • Design a PCB (Printed Circuit Board) layout from a schematic
  • Create a bill of materials and order the parts from a distributor
  • Analyze simple analog circuits by hand (e.g. using Kirchhoff’s circuit laws)
  • Simulate an analog circuit using SPICE (I prefer LTspice)
  • Know how to use a transistor and op-amp in a circuit

Signal Processing / Control

  • Design a simple (RC) analog low/high pass filter
  • Perform a FFT (e.g. using MATLAB or NumPy) and understand the results
  • Understand the difference between time domain and frequency domain
  • Implement a simple PID controller


  • Write basic embedded C/C++ (e.g. for an Arduino)
  • Know a scripting language (e.g. Python, MATLAB)


  • Support why a design decision was made (preferably with data)
  • Explain how technical things work to the average non-technical person
  • Prove Euler’s identity (I’ll admit I couldn’t do this off the top of my head right now)
Steering Wheel PCB Front

The dashboard for the 2009 Missouri S&T Formula SAE car, with lots of blinking LEDs (and a VFD display, not shown).

Becoming a better engineer

Let’s summarize, the three key characteristics that every engineer (tinkerer) should have are:

  1. A desire to learn.  Remember, Wikipedia is your friend.
  2. An urge to take things apart (whether or not they’re broken).
  3. A love for building things.

One key characteristic that separates successful engineers from the rest is that they can execute.  Many people can dream up some amazing contraptions, but actually building it is often a different story.  Often one of the best ways to solve a problem even if you don’t have it all planned out ahead of time, or if you’re unsure about how to approach the problem, is to just start building.  I find that often I can learn much more by just jumping into a project and starting and learning along the way, than if I would have spent more time planning.  Learning along the way, especially from your mistakes, can be especially important and educational.

They say practice makes perfect, and there is certainly significant evidence to support that claim.  Specifically work by Anders Ericsson, which is discussed in the excellent book: Talent is Overrated, which lends significant support to the theory that practice is what really distinguishes experts from the rest of us; but that’s another topic for another day.

If you’re at a loss for what to build, here are a few ideas:

  • Make a LED blink (e.g. with an Arduino)
  • Make a LED cube
  • Make a simple DC motor controller
  • Make an audio amplifier
  • Build a robot

They important thing is to just start.  You will make mistakes, but you will learn from them.  I’ve been involved in the hiring process for interviewing a few electrical engineers, and I have to admit, what really impressed me more than great grades and lots of involvement in various associations, were examples of some projects that the interviewee had made.  The important thing is to get out there and build something!

Here are a few useful resources for your adventure:

  • Sparkfun – a great resource for various electrical components and tutorials (especially their “Beginning Embedded Electronics” series)
  • Mouser and Digi-Key – my two favorite electronics distributors
  • Hack a Day – a great place to get some ideas and inspiration by seeing what others have done

Leave a comment if you have any questions/suggestions or would like some ideas.  Happy tinkering!