Project Ideas for Curious Students: Engineering Design Teams

This year marks my fourth year on Formula UBC, one of many engineering design teams at UBC. I can unequivocally say that it has been the highlight of my university experience so far. When I joined, I was not sure what to expect. I knew that I wanted to learn more about aerodynamics and CFD, but I never expected that 2 years later, I would be leading the aerodynamics sub-team. Even more so, I never anticipated learning anything about machining, composites or even race cars (shocking, I know). I never imagined myself running track tests or figuring out how to manage people. And I certainly never saw myself driving the car.  

You will often hear that the value of engineering design teams is that they are an opportunity to apply concepts learned in class to a real project. In my experience, there is a stark difference between knowing something, and understanding it well enough to apply the concept to a real system. Moreover, you get to see the result of your design decisions on a working (or failing) system.  

Depicted: formula UBC front wing during test day. Test days are used to verify that the final product behaves as intended in its design.

It also gives you the opportunity to explore far beyond what is taught in class: for example, composites manufacture and fluid dynamics simulation, to the best of my knowledge, are only taught in a very limited capacity. Outside of the Mech 2 curriculum, design teams are also a great way to link concepts from seemingly disparate subjects. On Formula, large projects cannot be completed successfully without adequate communication with members from other subteams, since these systems will have to be able to work together on the car. In some cases, such as with the pneumatics, different subsystems will be competing for the same resources.  

Beyond technical skills, the one experience I feel is often overlooked is interpersonal skills. Learning to manage others, to deal with an occasionally political environment and how to work with sponsors can prove to be a very humbling experience. Interpersonal skills come with experience, and learning them in a fast-paced environment is excellent practice for the “real world.” Your sponsors are real stakeholders, who often want to see a return on their investment of potentially thousands of dollars into your project through representation and promotion of their brand. Over the past year, I have truly begun to appreciate the significance of the proverb “if you want to go fast, go alone…if you want to go far, go together.” What my team has been able to accomplish by creating a healthy, collaborative team environment has been nothing short of amazing.  

If you are considering whether not you should join a design team, my answer to you is an emphatic YES! 

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