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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.

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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

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.

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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.

65315_10151522220483928_418646555_nOne 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.

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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.

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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.

Eric Weinhoffer

Eric is a Product Development Engineer at MAKE. He creates kits and sources products for sale in the Maker Shed, focusing primarily on manufacturing. Occasionally he writes about cool things for the blog and magazine.


Related

Comments

  1. I think there is a lot more of this in engineering schools than you might think. The capstone design sequence in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Missouri is very similar (disclaimer: I am the interim chair of the department). We allow students to select a project, but they conceive, plan, design, source, build and demonstrate their projects in one semester. I personally have supervised high altitude balloon payloads, CNC machines, personal environmental sensing suites, and electromagnetic guns, among others. Our capstone class is the part of our curriculum I am most proud of, and I am always amazed at the projects I see each semester.

    One issue that pops up is that design courses in engineering must be tailored to the discipline for accreditation. While source and build projects work well in ECE and Mech E, they don’t work well in Civil or Chemical Engineering (you aren’t likely to build your own oil refinery).

    I like the MIT model of intercession projects that are for broadening the experience but not a grade. More opportunities like this in engineering schools could allow additional hands-on experience for engineers.

    1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

      Thanks, Scott. The capstone class at Georgia Tech was similarly structured, where we took the project from start to finish. My main concern is the absence of these subjects (sourcing, building, etc.) in earlier, introductory engineering courses — there definitely isn’t a lack of capstone courses that implement this sort of teaching style. Does the University of Missouri introduce students to these topics earlier on? I know MIT and Georgia Tech do in some regard, but those are structured like a typical lab class, i.e. “Here’s a part drawing and some stock, go machine this with your team”.

      And yes, obviously this will be much different for other areas, and maybe even more challenging to implement. Since I’m not as familiar with Civil/Chemical, I don’t know if an introduction to these skills earlier on is even necessary for future success.

      As the interim chair of the department, do you see this sort of thing even being possible to implement into an engineering curriculum?

      1. As some of the other commenters have noted, it is possible to bring design, source, build into the curriculum earlier. We are trying, to some extent, to do this with freshmen here at Mizzou. One of the biggest challenges with engineering education is losing people while all that math and science is digested early on. Engineering is an academic discipline which requires that kind of rigor, but that same rigor can leave students feeling unconnected to what I think is the best profession in the world. Pervasive design (as noted) might be one way to make those connections.

        This is good discussion, and it is important as we think about the future of engineering education!

        1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

          Yes, I totally agree! Glad to hear you’re trying to keep students connected to that side of engineering at Mizzou.

        2. That’s exactly what I saw was happening in our department and why I ended up pursuing this path. Our current freshman to senior path is something like… one introductive ‘design class’ where you ‘prototype’ with foamcore and sticks (it’s getting better, at least now there’s 3d printers involved) which is a recent creation – when I was a freshman, there was only the intro to solid mechanics/materials class which is all book; then three years of hardcore theory and math and analysis; then ‘senior design’.

          Oh, and the 2.007 robot class in the middle, where we’re expected to teach remedial CAD, remedial machining, remedial machine components, remedial design processes… you name it. They think all of it can be foisted onto one class. Then in that case, it might as well be a good, worthwhile class that gives people a foundation to stand on; which is where I saw that I could improve the system with the EV design class.

          Disclaimer: Anything I say on this website is my opinion only and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, anyone else I am affiliated with.

  2. Rick Sellens says:

    We’re doing what we can to move in that direction. CDIO (cdio.org) is an initiative of more than 100 engineering schools worldwide (including MIT as one of the founders) dedicated to reforming curriculum towards practical engineering design practice. One of our standards includes getting this kind of design/build experience into the early years of every program. At Queen’s we’re moving towards an open ended design experience in every year.

    Keep on spreading the word! Resources and scale are the huge challenges and we can use all the help we can get.

    1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

      This is great! I’m sorry to say I didn’t know of CDIO before, but I’m glad I do now. Thanks for all your work, Rick — I’ll keep spreading the word.

    2. I have never heard of this. Interesting – looks like around here it’s confined to our Aero Astro dept.

  3. Travis says:

    I started school in mechanical engineering. After two years of math, theory, math, and math, I had yet to touch a machine tool. I quit. I don’t learn that way, I make stuff. Now, after working my way into a mechanical engineering job after starting as a technician, I still don’t have to use all of that math. So much of the job is project organization, personal organization, tracking down components to specify, and developing a vendor supply base. A class like this might have kept my interest up, and allowed me to complete the degree. I wholeheartedly agree that learning by doing is better than lecture.

    1. Eric Weinhoffer says:

      Thanks for sharing, Travis. I was close to leaving engineering for the same reason after a year or two, but stuck with it once I started fulfilling my desire to make things outside of class. Despite this, I also don’t have to use many of the things I was taught in my job now. A lot of the skills I use now were developed over time after school, but are present in Charles’ class, hence the excitement :)

    2. Tony says:

      I also left an ME program, it just felt dead and boring, though I could see the junior and senior class had interesting projects, as a Freshman, there was no outlet for creative hands-on thinking, which was very frustrating. I also felt the faculty was just waiting for the 2/3s of us to drop-out, totally detached.

  4. Michelle says:

    How about a slightly different tactic like a collaboration between makerspaces, schools and perhaps local government? The base idea I have is to get the wheels in motion without needing a full on curriculum change and buy in from schools. In my city, I believe the makerspace has gotten support from local government as an entrepreneurial incubator. The local student union has all sorts of non-credit courses that can be taken by community members and students, but students can take them at a discounted rate. Could these things be combined, possibly with the addition of credit from the school for students participating and funding for students to get parts, from businesses that could see the value of having students acquire these skills early, for example? It would be a way of schools “testing the waters” without full commitment.

    This could have multiple positive outcomes. Makerspaces would benefit from investment to support the effort. The community would benefit from having access to some of the additional tools, etc. that would result. Employers would benefit from having students acquire these skills early with the capstone being more a matter of polishing the skills up. Students would get the benefits listed in this article.

    There are other possible permutations of this idea of course. Isn’t one of the hallmarks of making collaboration? Why should this all need to be on the schools? :)

  5. AcePilot says:

    Michelle on November 18th, 2013 at 11:33 pm said:

    There are other possible permutations of this idea of course.
    Isn’t one of the hallmarks of making collaboration?
    Why should this all need to be on the schools?

    ======
    As usual, the path to enlightnemt is found hiding beyond the correct question. Michelle has posed that question, imo.

    Keeping such advanced ideas about learning locked away in bricks and mortar prison-schools is the ultimate insult to anyone seeking knowledge in the 21st century. The days of running education as an assembly line are now over. We have the smarts and the technology to acquire a knowledge base and a skill set to meet each of our individual needs at our own pace. Each of us can grow at the rate we are able and at which we desire, not being held back by the “slowest ship in the convoy”. I see a world of peer-to-peer learning and apprenticeships completely supplanting the archaic caste system school model from several centuries ago.

    The key process of advancing beyond the status quo is to GOTS* – Get Out of The System – leave it behind in the dust of its own making. The entrenched hierarchies are incapable of advancement, by definition. Young musicians, gamers, programmers, ‘bot builders, sports players, flyers, sailors, divers, dancers, quilters, wood/metal workers, . . . all persue their interests outside the old, dull, system. Anyone can do this, from theoretical mathematicians to performing artists and engineers of all kinds. I know because I did it 20 years ago.

    With the retirement of the baby-boomer generation, an extraordinary amount of talent and experience is available to which any of us can apprentice. It is only natural that the best teachers will wish to continue inspiring younger people outside the strictures of the formal education system. Think of it as tribal elders imparting their wisdom to the generations following, if they want it. It is their way to GOTS while being supported by their pensions and medicare from the system to which they contributed all those years.

    One caution is necessary. On this planet, if you are one step ahead of everyone else, you are a Visionary; two steps, a crazy person. ‘Twas ever so, ‘twil ever be.
    ======

    GOTS* – Get Out of The System – The GOTS Checklist
    http://www.jsmineset.com/2013/11/06/the-gots-checklist/
    Addresses financial survival but can be tailored for other needs.