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