Charles Guan is not a typical engineer. He not only makes electric vehicles very well, but is currently inspiring and teaching students as an instructor in a class he created. His mission is to give engineering students a meaningful hardware experience as early in their career as possible, by requiring them to work through the challenges of sourcing parts and building something reasonably complex – a working electric vehicle. The class has now been successfully run three times, with the current curriculum based around two-person teams, each of which is allocated a budget, access to a well-equipped shop, and a semester to build (and compete with) their vehicle.
The MITERS scooter brigade at this year’s World Maker Faire New York
Of course, getting people interested in the class isn’t hard, especially with the hum of electric motors and joyous students zipping around the halls in scooters or go-karts. Charles has been building electric vehicles for years and has slowly built up a following of individuals with similarly-built scooters and karts (who’ve traveled to Maker Faire, as seen above). By initially assisting in a special section of the 2.007 Mechanical Engineering class at MIT, and eventually taking it over to become an instructor, Charles has been able to continue shepherding engineering students off to go-karting glory.
So, why does all this matter? Well, I believe the way Charles has been teaching this course is the exact way more engineering courses should be taught, and I’d like to entertain the idea that this could end up being a model for other schools to follow in the future.
The Story of 2.00GoKart
Charles Guan. Photo Credit: Miho Kitagawa
I met Charles in person for the first time at the 2011 Atlanta Mini Maker Faire, which he brought his treaded skateboard, the LandBearShark, to. I knew of Charles thanks to connections he had with a few of my Studio friends at Georgia Tech and had been following his blog for years, reading along as he built and documented (in extreme detail) all happenings related to his crazy builds (fanscooter, anyone?). After spending more time with Charles and watching him work, I realized that he has more mechanical design and general fabrication knowledge than almost all other engineers I’ve met, and is extremely well-qualified to be instructing a group of engineering students.
He wrote about the creation of this scooter class in his recent “blog novel”, descriptively titled “ON 2.00GOKART; OR, DESIGNING A DESIGN CLASS TO DISRUPT DESIGN CLASSES AS WE KNOW IT; OR, HOW TO MAKE MIT UNDERGRADUATES BUILD SILLY GO-KARTS SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO”. It brings up a lot of fantastic points about the current state of Engineering in higher education, and think it’s worth the read (just grab a drink first). The summary of the class structure as it stands now is:
- Each team is given a set of batteries, one wheel, and a budget of $500 to spend on parts.
- The students must search for and buy their own parts (including more wheels), track down datasheets, and plan around shipping lead times as they go.
- Along the way, they learn to use rapid prototyping machining techniques like laser cutting and waterjet cutting to put their vehicles together quickly - they only have 7 weeks to go from design to a rolling mechanical frame.
Students work hard to get wheels on their karts in time for the mandatory rolling frame inspection.
Skills like part-sourcing and machining seem rare in Engineering education nowadays, and that’s unfortunate. Sure, the theory is extremely important, but it might not get you 100% of the way to solving a real-world engineering problem. Charles sums up the distinction in his blog post nicely:
“An engineering class teaches you to use a theoretical and analytical approach to solve a well-defined problem, and a design class teaches you to use a practical approach backed by engineering science to solve an ill-defined or open-ended problem.”
Students encounter ill-defined and open-ended problems during the design process all the time, where text books and lab manuals aren’t very helpful. Giving them the freedom to create these problems, and subsequently solve them for themselves, is extremely valuable. Finding solutions to those ill-defined problems gives them an increased sense of prowess in mechanical design, leading to additional self exploration and therefore less bothering of the instructor. Furthermore, when students get to see (and own) the entire design and fabrication process from start to finish, they will be better equipped for dealing with larger and more complex projects (such as a Capstone-type class) because they’re already familiar with the structure.
One of the crazy karts in progress. Check out the highlight video for more.
One major difference between Charles’ class and the typical introductory design class is the pressure on the students to come up with a design and Bill of Materials from scratch, which means not all the problems they encounter will be solvable with a file and some elbow grease. Understanding how to look for parts and managing time spent between part shipments are very real challenges, as Charles explains on his blog:
“The first time many MechE students see shopping for parts here is in our senior classes. I have counted more instances of people producing very convoluted solutions to a problem that 5 minutes of rummaging through the McMaster-Carr catalog could have avoided, than I care to disclose.”
Guys, this is important stuff. Fabricating something in five hours when it could’ve been bought in five minutes is a lot of wasted time, and time is money. In the spirit of learning about how (and where) to buy parts, I highly recommend any aspiring engineer or curious maker to spend some time on McMaster-Carr, even if you never make an order. There’s so much good information there; simply browsing their catalog and reading about intriguing parts is a great way to learn. (example: did you know you could buy this many varieties of cable tie?)
Jumping on the scooter bandwagon
Slight diversion: after reading about Charles’ initial 2.00GoKart endeavors and watching some school friends build vehicles, I decided to build a scooter for myself.
The author’s electric scooter.
Thanks mainly to Charles’ fantastic instructable, I was able to build a working scooter during the Summer of 2012 (you can read more about that here). I learned an enormous amount in those few months, like how much more careful you have to be with tolerances when working with metal than you do with wood, countless machining tricks, and how to buy parts (HobbyKing orders with large batteries coming from China take a painfully long time).
I spent a week or so on the CAD before building anything, and with the help of a well-equipped shop, built the thing. I’m willing to bet that 3/4 of my total machining time up to that point came from that build, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything now.
Where to Go from Here?
The main challenge (and goal) here is figuring out how to replicate this class elsewhere. There are three main issues with this:
- Scalability: assuming there’s a dozen teams of two in a larger class, can it be structured in a way that allows a dozen custom orders to get sent out every week for a semester? How would you move from 24 students to 96? Oh, and “just buy parts in bulk that everyone can use” doesn’t work here, since that would negate the whole “learn how to buy” aspect of the course.
- Accessibility: the class relies on a well-equipped machine shop, including waterjet machining and laser cutting access. How could it be run in a more basic “home shop” or “garage shop” style environment? Charles has explored the idea of machining-less design in the past, with his Chibikart instructable (although it does still imply the use of a waterjet service).
- Dissemination: the class is heavily dependent on a handful of highly knowledgeable and passionate instructors. Should the Electric Vehicle community be searched for potential instructors, or can that role only be filled by those affiliated with the school in question?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, but I think that in addition, the larger, overarching hurdle is getting the Engineering departments of the world onboard. As far as I can tell, deviation from the norm isn’t something that happens quickly or easily in higher education.
I’ll suggest another option for getting this going elsewhere, based mainly on the need for qualified, passionate instructors: other schools adapt a design class of similar structure, but instead of limiting it to an EV theme, why not open it up to instructors who’re knowledgeable in a specific subject and have a desire to teach? For example, alongside Charles’ EV class one year, a group of Lincoln Labs researchers helped run a similar lab section where students built small UAVs – planes, multirotors, and helicopters. Something similarly costly (a few hundred dollars per student, per semester) could be done with CNC machines, I think: two-student teams are required to build a working CNC in one semester.
Are we crazy for thinking that getting this out there is possible? What’s the best way to spread the hands-on learning love in higher education? Please let us know what you think with a comment below.