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University competitions test students’ ability to think on their feet

Annual contests, some international in scope, also expose students to experiential, hands-on learning.


Twelve hours before the Mobile Microrobotics Challenge, a student competition held in Germany last May, Matthew Maclean and his teammate decided to write a new computer program to control the team’s robot in the race. After a late night, the two University of Waterloo students altered the program they had worked on for weeks. The last-minute changes helped the team win the race in under a second – 0.33 of a second, to be exact.

The University of Waterloo’s microrobotics team designed a robot that was only 0.3 mm wide, says Mr. Maclean, a third-year software engineering student. Organizers had to set up a microscope over the track to project the race onto a large screen because the robots are too tiny to see with the naked eye. Waterloo’s team won the Autonomous Mobility Challenge, where the microrobots had to navigate a track in the shape of a figure eight. The students defeated six teams from Canada, the United States, France and the Czech Republic.

“I experienced what it was like leading a group of programmers, which is something you don’t get in class,” Mr. Maclean says of the competition. It’s the kind of experience that teaches you how to communicate with students from different fields, he adds. The team also has arts and sciences students who help secure sponsorships and market the project.

Thinking on your feet, working in teams, applying theory to actual challenges: those are some of the benefits to those who participate in the myriad student competitions held every year in Canada and around the world. These competitions, many of them around for years, are also an excellent demonstration of the recent trend in higher education towards experiential learning.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of competitions for science and engineering students to choose from. Many involve robots of varying sizes, as well as remotely operated vehicles and aerial drones. There are also racing competitions of all kinds using solar cars, human-powered vehicles and numerous other conveyances.

Among the more involved contests, there is an annual competition by the U.S. Department of Energy to design and build energy-efficient solar houses in which two Canadian teams participated this past year. There’s also a homegrown Canadian satellite design competition where the winning project gets the opportunity to go up in space.

Hands-on learning

“It is very difficult to do much hands-on learning in classes because of the time required,” says Howard Cheng, a mathematics and computer science professor at the University of Lethbridge who also acts as team coach for a student programming team. “In computer science, there is the theoretical side of many concepts, but in practice the theory often needs to be implemented as computer programs,” he says. “My experience is that until an implementation is done by ‘getting your hands dirty,’ you really don’t understand all the intricate details and why certain things are the way they are.” Student competitions, he says, are a great opportunity to “get your hands dirty.”

Michael Leung, a nanotechnology engineering student on the Waterloo microrobotics team, says it takes about 200 hours of preparation time to design a robot that’s capable of winning a race at this level. “When you’re competing internationally, there’s an incentive to perform better than anyone else,” he says. “It’s not like a class project, where you’re just striving to achieve the goals or the grade.”

As well, by joining the team as a first-year student, Mr. Leung says the competition introduced him to equipment and research facilities that students normally don’t get to use until the third or fourth year of their degree. Now in his fourth-year, Mr. Leung devotes four hours each week to working on the microrobot. The team’s win last spring will take them to Hong Kong in May for the 2014 International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

The team at Lethbridge that Dr. Cheng mentors recently participated in the ACM Rocky Mountain Regional Programming Contest held at the University of Alberta in October. For the competition, student teams were given a real-life scenario – such as writing a program to post advertisements on Facebook so the adverts are seen by the largest possible number of people – and were then given a few hours to solve the problem under the scrutiny of expert judges.

U of Lethbridge student Darcy Best and his team beat 39 other teams from across North America to take first place. In June 2014, the team of three will compete in the world finals in Russia. “There’s a huge gap between what you learn in class and what you practice in the competition,” says Mr. Best. “It gives you a different perspective, and the chance to see the problems and solutions from a higher level.”

Some universities actively encourage these types of competitions because doing well in them may enhance the reputation of the university, says team coach Dr. Cheng. As well, he says, high-tech companies like IBM, Google, Facebook and others “look at these contests as recruitment tools to discover talents, and that gives extra motivation for some students.” It is common knowledge, he says, that many of these companies give “contest type” problems at job interviews to evaluate the applicants.

On the “lighter” side

Not all university competitions are quite so serious. One event that steers more to the fun side is the annual Canadian National Concrete Canoe Competition, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2014. As the name suggests, student teams from across Canada compete to design and construct their own canoe – out of concrete.

The 2013 competition took place in May at the Olympic Basin in Montreal and was hosted by the École de Technologie Supérieure. Each university prepares a team of paddlers who paddle about 100 metres, turn quickly around a buoy and paddle the same distance back. The race also tests which canoe can turn the fastest. But the competition involves more than just racing: a large portion of the scores come from an oral presentation about the canoe’s design, as well as a written technical report.

The University of Toronto team tests out their canoe. Photo courtesy of University of Toronto.

“The race is so much fun to see because one minute you’re behind, then all of a sudden you start catching up and the team starts cheering and screaming,” says Cory Sulpizi, a civil engineering student at the University of Toronto who helped design his team’s hull. The U of T team placed third overall.

“It’s usually a tight race,” says Mr. Sulpizi, “but there’s always at least one canoe that just doesn’t hold up like it was planned to and ends up sinking.” When that happens, the other teams “are always supportive and sympathetic about it.”

For the next competition, in May 2014, his team is designing a Scooby Doo-themed canoe patterned after the Mystery Machine (the name of the van that the Scooby Doo characters ride in). The point is to represent the university in a fun and memorable way, while making the process creative for students, Mr. Sulpizi says.

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