TSA Conference Reflection, and How to Teach Engineering

Engineering excites me. After hours and days being forced to evaluate theoretical expressions that only held up in precise utopian states, it felt nice to finally be faced with problems that had practical applications and real results.

When I earned the presidency of my school’s Junior Engineering Technical Society, I couldn’t have been more elated. It was my goal to promote engineering schoolwide. Following our TSA’s TEAMS regionals runner-up finish, we were invited to attend the national Technology Student Association conference in Washington DC. As I read the results of the regional, I couldn’t help but think that this would be the pinnacle of achievement for our club. We were going to represent our school on a national stage.

Our team prepared well into summer nights to ensure a quality performance at our debut conference. We threw ideas onto powerpoints and documents, proofread and revised, argued and discussed. After hours of careful preparation, we were ready.

I for one felt greatly privileged to be on the 6am flight to Washington DC. After all the paperwork and cooperation necessitated with Lynbrook, we were all very lucky to have the opportunity to partake in the conference.

The conference center was a bustling hub of activity, with more than 7,000 participants in attendance. Many of them wore numerous ribbons on their name, such as “first time competitor”, “chapter president”, and “future engineer” providing a distinct sense of flair for each individual. Later in the night, the welcome ceremony fireworks made us all feel even more special and important. It seemed as if the conference would host a welcome mecca of enthusiastic engineers.

The conference's opening ceremonial fireworks.

The conference’s opening ceremonial fireworks.

However, my glorified image of this engineering conference would take a drastic turn the very next day. Our team grouped up together, anticipating our first engineering challenge. The proctor summoned all the team captains and explained the challenge to us.

As he explained the task, I didn’t seem to be getting more optimistic. At the very least, the challenge seemed to be a joke after all the trouble we had been through just to partake in the conference and its festivities.

I say this with unwavering sincerity – we were supposed to balance a full 2-liter water bottle using a piece of paper, essentially engineering a load-bearing structure with a simple sheet of A4 paper. I was aghast. We had traveled nearly 2800 miles, completed a veritable mound of paper work, and spent a whole thousand dollars just to manipulate a simple sheet of paper?! I concealed my heavy disdain and carefully relayed the instructions to my teammates.

Unfortunately, as the challenge advanced, our team struggled with the task, and failed to create a piece of paper that would bear the weight of the full bottle. If it was any consolation, I could safely attest that our professional-grade writeup was top notch.

The oral competition wasn’t much better. Few of my teammates felt the need to understand the material we had prepared for the presentation on alleviating congestion, and it showed. The judges assaulted us with questions which we answered in shaky voices. Needless to say, I was disappointed.

During the awards ceremony, I wasn’t expecting anything. To my surprise, though, we were called up for our good performance on the writing section. We jovially jogged up to the stage and awaited the announcement of the awards. While we lined up, each team member received small “consolation” pins. As it turned out, we had placed 6th in the country for our collaborative research paper that we wrote on tracking.

The interior of the Gaylord Convention Center, the venue of the 2014 TSA National Conference.

The interior of the Gaylord Convention Center, the venue of the 2014 TSA National Conference.

Aside from the small recognition our team earned, I couldn’t take much away from the conference. Or maybe it was just that we had been promoting engineering incorrectly. I began to think harder, and came to the conclusion that we weren’t using the correct approach to bring engineering to fellow students. Quite aptly, a quote from the popular comedy show “The Office” came to my mind. In the episode “Safety Training”, Regional Manager Michael Scott remarks, “You don’t go to the museum and get handed a pamphlet on electricity. You put your hands on metal ball, your hair sticks up… and you learn science.”

Attending to the conference and participating in a trivial challenge felt like being handed the metaphorical pamphlet on engineering. It was no different from an FBLA or DECA business conference, neither of which successfully further true business concepts. The TSA national conference failed to seed profound engineering interests in fresh new minds. In the future, I believe that prospective engineering students should be placed in active environments containing tangible problems and challenges for them to solve. Put engineers next to an incomplete freeway interchange, and have them create actual design specifications for the onramps and exit lanes. Take students to a new server farm, and have them study the different file transfer protocols and infrastructure that allows a company to store its data. Plan a field trip to the local university laboratory, and allow participants to manage the manufacturing process – the machines, instruments, and materials – of a new medical device. Through these hands-on, close-up brushes with various scenarios, people will immerse themselves in the thrill of creation and the euphoria of success that comes with engineering.

A passive approach falls short to enlighten and ensnare new minds into the world of engineering. Using active scenarios, we can make a difference and fill the growing demand for new, hungry engineers.

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