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If you want the power to kill a lot of people, be an engineer. You will get the chance. - A quote from the dean of engineering at Texas A&M University.

There are at least 50 things in your house that will kill you if they malfunction, but you probably never thought about that before. You don't need to because they have been carefully designed and thoroughly analyzed by engineers who willingly risk their career, the survival of their business, and the reputation of their industry with every item they release for production.

But how smart are the next generation of engineers? As a design judge for the inaugural Formula SAE West competition, I just found out.

http://students.sae.org/competitions/formulaseries/west/

Formula SAE began in 1981, but has grown so much recently that they had to limit the entry list at the Detroit competition to one car each from 140 universities. Think of that! There are so many universities with enough engineering students each willing to take on the challenge of financing, designing, building, and racing a real car in their spare time for no college credit that they have overwhelmed the logistical capacity of a 90,000 member professional society. FSAE West is essentially an overflow event to allow more universities to participate. In addition to the two American events, FSAE events are held in England, Australia, Brazil, and Italy. At FSAE West, there were 70 teams entered from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Sweden, Venezuela, and 22 of the 50 United States.

In addition to racing events, the competition includes several non-driving events designed to test the technical proficiency of the team members. During design judging, each team brought its car and all team members to the juging area for an intense 30 minute meeting with the design judges. All of the design judges were racing industry professionals, many of whom are very well known and respected leaders in their respective fields. If you are a racer, you know the names Paul Van Valkenburg, William Mitchell, and Doug Milliken.

After a brief introductory presentation, the judges asked questions of each team member who designed an individual system on the car, then convened to discuss the scores and written comments. Our primary focus was on whether or not the team members understood why they built the car as they did, not whether they made optimum decisions or employed superb craftsmanship during construction. The next day was an open day for teams to come back to the judging area for extensive feedback and suggestions for improving their performance during next year's event. This was the judges' opportunity to provide guidance and inspiration, which for me proved to be much more enjoyable than the judging process. None of the first year teams availed themselves of this opportunity, which was a huge loss for them since they stood to benefit the most from it.

The spectrum of engineering expertise was quite wide, but the average level of knowledge was reassuring. The low end of the skill spectrum was exclusively populated by first year teams without an experienced racer to advise them.

As for the top end of the spectrum, OMG! I was utterly flabbergasted by the phenomenal level of effort, analysis, optimization, and understanding those kids brought to their programs. The best few cars were so good that I'm not sure a professional race car manufacturer could best their design quality. Take a look at this gem:

http://www.fsae.rmit.edu.au/

Don't be put off by the odd proportions. That's just the way FSAE cars are. A unique aspect of Formula SAE is that there is no minimum weight. There were 3 cars at FSAE West that weighed less than 350 lb!

I came away from the event very impressed with the proficiency and talent on display and reassured that the future of the engineering profession is in good hands. I care about this because these kids will be designing my car, stadium, pacemaker, elevator, and pipeline as soon as they graduate.

Neil
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