Thursday, March 27, 2014

Project Proposal: How University Competitions Shape Undergraduate Engineering Education

In 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created the MIT IDEAS competition, a joint venture between the MIT Public Service Center and the Edgerton Center, a multi-disciplinary center for hands-on engineering education. The purpose of this competition was to “challenge students to apply their academic skills in innovative ways to help meet community needs”. Competitors were given $100-1,000 grants to develop their idea (Smith, Banzaert, & Susnowitz, 2003, p. 8). Today, this competition has evolved into the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge which “supports students’ innovative and entrepreneurial public service projects” with up to $10,000 awarded per team. This competition is sponsored by groups like the DOW Chemical Company, Monster, and The National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance ( In addition to the funding provided by the competition to help students develop their ideas, participants are encouraged to find “other sources of funding” from places like NSF and NIH (“piggy backing” off a faculty grant application), corporate sponsors, and others (

At the 2001 MIT IDEAS competition seven of the twenty-two finalists submitted projects that had begun in their coursework (Smith et al., 2003). Today, engineering courses like “2.009 Product Engineering Processes” help inspire competitors by creating a learning environment that allows students to “design and build working alpha prototypes of new products”. This course is currently funded by corporations like Shell and General Motors. (

The history and development of competitions like the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge and engineering courses like “2.009 Product Engineering Processes” provides an interesting background to explore the interactions between innovation, entrepreneurialism, and undergraduate education. For my research paper, I would like to research the interactions between university competitions (with their focus on innovation and entrepreneurialism) and undergraduate education by examining the boundary objects that help shape both. This research topic directly relates to my current research observing the UW-Madison engineering course, ECE 379: WI Make Sustainability. Since the fall 2013 semester, when this course was first offered, I have begun to observe changes to the curriculum as students have been encouraged to submit their design projects to UW competitions like the Energy Hub and Agricultural Innovation Prize. I have also begun to notice a stronger emphasis on entrepreneurialism from course instructors and visiting faculty and development companies like Orbitec.  

My research paper for this course will include three parts,
1.       A review of the recent history of student competitions and undergraduate engineering education at universities like MIT and UW. I plan to use peer-reviewed literature, university documents (competition websites, course syllabi, etc), news articles, and possible interviews with UW faculty to guide my research and answer questions like,
·         Did student competitions start at the graduate level and outside the university and then move into the undergraduate level?
·         Was there a change from non-profit to profit?
·         What are the purposes for holding competitions for the university? For the state? Federal government?
o   Are they driven by industry as recruiting tools? Venture-capital tools? Crowd-sourcing?  An efficient way to get expertise and research?

2.       A report of my findings from my research on the WI Make Sustainability engineering course including boundary objects from university competitions that enter the course and possibly shape the curriculum and students’ learning experiences. These findings will act as pilot data to develop a more in-depth research study.

3.       Using both the literature review and the pilot data, I will propose a future research project to examine my research questions further including research methodology and data sources.

Smith, A., Banzaert, A., & Susnowitz, S. (2003, November). The MIT ideas competition: promoting innovation for public service. In Frontiers in Education, 2003. FIE 2003 33rd Annual (Vol. 3, pp. S1B-8). IEEE.

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