When asked what they want to do when they grow up, most kids talk about becoming ballerinas and firefighters. Although that idea often evolves into more of a mainstream career choice, few go down the path of engineering. This deficit leads to a shortage of leaders in the engineering and science industries, who solve many of society’s challenges. By producing a guidebook entitled, “Saving the World One Student at a Time,” National Instruments hopes to inspire engineering educators and their students and revitalize the industry. The guidebook recounts stories from industry leaders around the globe, who are profiled because they have found ways to bring engineering education to new levels. Examples range from having middle-school students in Germany teach themselves about RF waves to students in Mexico learning how to communicate with robots.

Students Create Their Own Waves

One of the individuals profiled is Jan Dohl, who heads the Vodafone Chair in the 5G Research Lab at Technische Universität (TU) in Dresden, Germany. After seeing  a shortage of engineers qualified to work in wireless communications and RF, Dohlsought to challenge the assumption that these topics were too complex for young students. He was inspired by memories of his own childhood and how much knowledge he gained by disassembling and exploring various things.

Dohl and TU then partnered with the Martin-Andersen-Nexö Gymnasium School for its annual “project week.” He kept a hands-off approach with his project, which required teams to build a radio receiver for Morse code using digital data transmission over radio waves. Dohl only intervened if the students veered too far off course.

Using system design software to be able to physically “see” the waves, the 12-year-old students even surprised Dohl with how capable they were in completing the tasks. Reflecting on the experience, Dohl said, “Here I was, trying to prove to skeptics that we were underestimating these students… Meanwhile, they managed to surprise even me. I realized we are all guilty of underestimating young people.”

Talk Robot to Me

“Imagine if every one of us spoke our own language,” said Pedro Ponce, PhD, a Professor at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) in Mexico City. “We’d never be able to share anything with one another. Imagine how slow our society’s progress would be.”

Ponce believes that lack of communication is holding the machine and robotics world back--the fact that the machines are unable to communicate with one another. Realizing the need for a unified, common language, Ponce used the LabVIEW software to create a platform for collaborative robot development for his students. The students programmed in a visual language, which was directly translated into a technical language that the robots could read.

The teams were told to build a community of robots that had to navigate a relay-style maze, with each robot performing a specific assignment. The entire process would only work if each robot effectively communicated with the next one. Such communication was based on an “optimization algorithm,” which initialized a basis for timing.

“We must do in education and research what the students’ robots did in the maze: communicate, share information, tell each other how to help,” Ponce said afterwards.

“Saving the World” includes testimonials and profiles from 12 universities representing more than 10 countries. Other stories include a professor in Norway transforming staircases into working pianos, which challenged students on their perceptions of the “personal” and the “practical.” In addition, a professor in Los Angeles, California re-worked the education system into an effective assembly-line model. The guidebook can be downloaded here.