The Engineering Design Competition: Day 1

A gathering of the top engineering students from across Zambia. A culmination of many months preparation and anticipation. A celebration of innovation and problem solving. A step forward for Zambia’s future generation of technical leaders. An inspiration.

All of these things were what the Engineering Design Competition held on October 4-5 at Copperbelt University was. The days leading up to the competition were a flurry of activity. We collected parts for the competition, finalized logistical details, and tied the knots on all of the ends we could.  After having been in Zambia for five weeks, the work of Kulemela and its partners was coming together at last.  The preparations were not without some challenges, however, as we made emergency arrangements to handle a last minute fallout of some of our sponsorship funds and tried to marshal last minute coordination with more contacts than our minds had room for. In light of the challenges, we persevered and arrived in the morning of Day One with determination to make the competition the best it could be.

The main tent (left) and high table stage (right).

The five institutions including Copperbelt University; Northern Technical College; University of Zambia; Zambia Air Service Training Institution and Zambia Information and Communication Technology College descended upon the venue with excitement for the coming competition.  One hundred students would participate in total, split between twenty teams of one student from each institution. Each team would be tasked to design and present a prototype solution to a local technical challenge using a set of standard materials.  The design question this year was a follows:

A telecommunications company in Zambia has identified access to electricity as a limiting factor for use of their mobile services in rural areas.  The company’s research has shown that bicycles are the primary form of transportation in these regions.  With this knowledge, the company has commissioned your services to design and present a prototype charger for the phones they distribute to these rural areas.

You must design a low-cost charger prototype that uses a dynamo to convert the mechanical energy of a bicycle into low voltage electrical charge for small devices such the company’s mobile phones. The following design constraints and assumptions must be followed

  1. The bicycle charger will be packaged with a standard phone such that the phone/charger interface is consistent
  2. All energy must come from the mechanical energy of the bicycle – no other sources are appropriate.
  3. A local NGO has donated many bicycles that are of similar design to the one provided to your team. Assume that it is a universal model.
  4. The charger should be designed such that no alterations to the bicycle are required.
  5. The charging interface must be securely mounted to the bicycle such that it can withstand the rough terrain of rural roads.
  6. The design should accommodate the phone in such a way that it is secured to the bicycle and protected from the elements.
  7. The charger should not interfere with the typical use of the bicycle; riding the bicycle must not be hindered in any way.
  8. There must be an indicator light on the charger to show that it is operational.

The students were given four hours two design and fabricate their prototype charger system, with a required “no tools” period of thirty minutes at the start of the build period. After completion of the build, students were required to present to a panel of judges for the first round of judging.  Split into four divisions, teams were competing for first place in their divisions or the single wildcard spot to join the final five in the second round of judging. Teams were named after famous scientists and engineers, with divisions named after four of the simple machines (prizes to whoever is first to identify the inspiration behind both of those choices :P).

Returning back to the story of the day, the morning of the event was a slightly frantic dash to try and organize the competition materials and shuffle teams into their rooms. Due to an unexpected change in the schedule of our Guest of Honour for the day, the competition started a couple hours early which pushed the final competition preparations into overdrive. The heroes of the morning were the team of student volunteers, about thirty strong form Copperbelt University and University fo Zambia, who helped me sort out students, parts and rooms all in a dance of improvisation.

A contingent of the volunteer team; my army of help to get the competition morning underway. Special thanks to them!

After some madness getting the teams and their materials into rooms, they set to work on their four hour engineering marathon. The air was buzzing with thought and concentration as teams examined the problem, their resources, and the collective knowledge of the team. As they set to work, there was still much running around to do on the part of myself and the volunteer team. Getting some missing parts and other logistical arrangements tended to was a constant flurry of phone calls, trots across the campus grounds, and the occasional sigh of relief.  I joked throughout the day on how close to Lusaka my walking could have taken me.

Team Schrodinger makes their initial plans for their charging system.

As teams soldered, screwed, scratched heads, and said “aha” I was off to organize the judging team. We were fortunate to have many faculty and industry members out to the event bringing our judging panels to a healthy set of four. The meeting was a brief review of the judging materials and the logistics of the tournament.  Teams were graded 50% for their design and innovation; 30% for the system performance; and 20% for their presentation quality. Each section was broken down into smaller categories giving a clear and concise set of expectations for teams. All the while teams continued to put together the eventual products for the judges.

Team Edison puts some final touches on their charger prototype as the competition nears it’s end.

The official opening ceremonies abutted the final moments of the design competition allowing the special guests to tour the rooms and marvel at the work of the students. The ceremony went great, with motivating speeches from our Guest of Honour, the Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education, Dr. Patrick Nkanza, and the Vice Chancellor of Copperbelt University, Dr. Naison Ngoma, among others. After the ceremony teams filed back into their rooms to set up for the presentation to the panels of judges. And so the tense moments of anticipation began.

No picture of the judging process so here’s one of some of the volunteers looking fresh as ever in their slick new tshirts. Excellent poses too, guys.

As the sun set and the day drew to a close, the competition did as well.  The results were in for totalling by the judges and teams and volunteers alike headed home for a well deserved rest. After a long day, I too was looking for a soft place to put my head – I think I ended up making the whole way to Lusaka 😛  With the challenges of the day behind us, and our reactions to them swift and (mostly) successful, it was time to start looking forward to the excitement of the next day!

And you should too!  Next blog post will be about Day Two and the exciting final round of judging that brought together some really exciting projects.  I’ll also be publishing a little bit on some thoughts and observations from the two days; soon to be written once I finally decide which of the many to share.  In the mean time, post up your questions about the competition and any parts you’d like to hear more about! I’d love to get some feedback on your initial thoughts on the competition.


4 responses to “The Engineering Design Competition: Day 1

  1. I would love to hear what kind of ideas came out of those intense four hours! Four hours! Props to them. And were those some women I saw in those photos? What was the female-male ratio like? What was the feedback like from the students? Sounds awesome overall, I can hear your energy in the blog post 🙂

    • I’m going to try and include some of the top team’s results in the next post – they all made some great innovations! And yes, the students were spilt 25 female / 75 male. The students said the experience was overall great and they looked forward to the next one.

  2. Hm, I am guessing FIRST Division names came in to be part of the influence there.

    So, I am assuming after running this, your are a shoe in to take over Waterloo so we don’t have to any more right?

    • Ok so you have half – where did the division names come from?

      And perhaps I’d have a couple of the skills, but I’ll leave that up to those with some more experience 😛

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s