How to choose the right engineering competitions

Every time I walk by my sons’ Lego table, I’m reminded of a robotics competition they participated in.

They were challenged to interview the senior citizens in the community and create an innovation to solve a problem they face; they decided to focus on transportation. They did a lot of research on the topic and then created a working model of past, present and future vehicles. They presented their solution at a regional event and did well enough to be invited to present in front of the judges at a world competition. They had a lot of fun working with teammates to solve a problem in ways quite different than they would in the typical classroom.

Engineering competitions_Legos_3.jpgPhoto courtesy of the author

As they grow beyond Legos, I’m excited to point them in the direction of real-world engineering competitions that are teaching problem solving, innovation and even systems engineering.

There are a lot of engineering competitions and challenges out there, but you should always look for key criteria so you can ensure the competitions are valuable to you as a student. In my last post, we emphasized how critical real-world competitions and curriculum are for future-ready graduates. Let’s talk more about these engineering competitions and how they give students the engineering work experience they need for future success. 

Collaboration. One key criteria of real-world engineering competitions is collaboration. Engineering competitions that provide the opportunity for global collaboration help prepare students to work more successfully in global product development.

Students often tell me that learning how to communicate across different languages, cultures and time zones is their biggest takeaway from a global competition.

Case in point, I recently saw 3,700 students from 115 teams and schools representing 24 countries come together in Hockenheim, Germany. This global student engineering competition challenges students to build, test and race a small-scale formula race car in combustion, electric and driverless categories.

After a rigorous “scrutineering,” students compete in dynamic events that rank results in endurance, acceleration and efficiency as well as static events that review engineering design, cost and manufacturing and business plan presentation. Six student teams occupy the same space one professional Formula 1 race team typically occupies, so the closeness invites frequent communication and collaboration – and having this engineering work experience while still being a student is a big advantage for your future career. 

Engineering Competitions_Formula Student Germany.pngEngineering competitions like Formula Student Germany give students the collaboration experience they need for success. (Image courtesy of Formula Student Germany)

Industry alignment. A second key criteria is industry alignment. Engineering competitions that engage engineering and manufacturing organizations ensure students are tackling real-world problems companies currently face.

Industry input in competition design ensures challenges that require a multidisciplinary approach. They challenge students to gather relevant industry data while thinking through design, analysis, manufacturing, product costing, data management, marketing and business planning.

Engineering Competitions_Global Univeristy Challenge 2016 - Open Innovation.png

For example, Siemens designed a Global University Challenge on the Digital Twin this year. Students at eight universities were challenged to design measurement and data acquisition methods to enable the digital twin through Tecnomatix.

Students liked engaging with Siemens subject matter experts on futuristic trends. This collaboration during the ideation phase provided students the constructive feedback that helped them make important manufacturability changes to improve their solutions using digital twin technology.

Classroom integration. A third criteria is classroom integration. Engineering competitions that are both inter- and extracurricular provide the best combination of thoughtful theory and context with real-world application for the most beneficial engineering work experience.

In a previous post, we talked about changing the proportion of engineering science and practice, and competitions provide the right vehicle to do just that. Did I mention they’re also fun? Most senior engineers I talk with wish they could go back to school whenever they see one of these competitions in action.

Engineering competitions_classroom integration.jpgClassroom integration should be an important part of engineering competitions.

When SpaceX challenged students to revolutionize “terrestrial transportation” in a Hyperloop competition, 27 teams around the world signed up. This is the first competition of its kind to help accelerate the development of a functional Hyperloop pod and encourage student innovation for real-world engineering work experience.

See why University of Maryland calls competitions like this one “co-curricular.” Students tested pods earlier this year and just finished launching their pods on a mile long vacuum track at SpaceX’s HQ. Peak speed was more than 200 mph!

Engineering Competitions_ UMDLoop3render.jpgThe University of Maryland’s Hyperloop team competed in this unique SpaceX competition. (Photo courtesy of UMD Loop)

Let me tell you about a few more that make the grade.

• Spaceport America Cup is an international intercollegiate rocket engineering competition bringing together 100 post-secondary schools from 11 countries. The University of British Columbia rocketed to first place.

• EcoCAR is an industry-academic partnership with GM and the U.S. Department of Energy connecting 16 universities in a four-year competition to re-engineer a Chevrolet Camaro into a hybrid.

• The World Solar Car Challenge brings student teams to Australia every two years to race 3,000 km in the outback powered only by the sun. 

• Greenpower is an amazing global competition with one of the largest age spans. Thousands of students ages 9 to 25 compete regionally and globally in this electric car design, build, race competition.

• PACE is an industry-academic partnership with GM that connecting 65 universities in 12 countries on future mobility design challenges. 

For you students out there, you – and my sons – have plenty of engineering competitions to choose from. I challenge you to pick the ones that give you an opportunity for global collaboration, that allow you to develop your skills with digital systems, that are aligned with industry and that can be integrated in your classroom and school work. You need that real-world engineering work experience, and these competitions are a great way to get that experience.

For you industry folks out there, if you are not engaged in a real-world competition, it’s time to step up. We can’t expect academia to close the skills gap alone. Students need us to be actively engaged to change and improve their engineering education. You may find this to be the most rewarding part of your work – at least the most fun.


About the author

Dora Smith is the senior director of the global academic program for Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of Siemens Digital Factory Division. Under Dora’s leadership, the global academic program is now a company-wide strategic initiative for the company. The program empowers the next generation of digital talent through project-based learning, STEM competitions and industrial strength software and curriculum to support more than 1 million students and more than 3,000 institutions worldwide. Dora is an accredited business communicator with more than 20 years of experience. Previously, she held executive management positions at CAD Potential (now part of Tata Technologies), where she developed the company’s first academic and certification programs. Prior to that, she directed the Unigraphics Users Group (now PLM World) an independent, not-for-profit organization supporting the engineering community. She also served as president on the board of directors of IABC St. Louis. Dora earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree in business administration from Washington University.

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