Student Competitions: It Isn't Kids Stuff

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Let’s not kid ourselves, Generation Z rules. If you don’t belong to this growing demographic group, however, take heart. Those of us born before the late 1990s have a few things we can point to with pride: We generally call the shots, make the money, and have the life and professional experiences to contextualize things in ways that the younger set cannot.

What we can’t do, however, is experience the excitement of growing up in the connected, technology-driven world shared by today's student engineers.

This diverse group of young women and men is exhilarated by the way they are learning to attack problems in school—and by the inspiring examples of engineers reshaping the world around them. They place no limit on their creativity, and no boundaries on what they can accomplish within the engineering profession and outside of it.

Gen Z engineering students and recent grads think they can make the world a better place for humankind because, well… because they can. They are involved in humanitarian efforts globally (such as EngineeringForChange.org). They serve as mentors and tutors for high school and elementary school STEM programs. And when they graduate, their frame of reference enables them to enter fields where the combination of creativity, intellectual rigor, and discipline they learned in school gives them an edge.

“In the past, generations went into engineering because they fit the stereotypes of the nerdy kid who loved science. Now, students study engineering because they know they are going to be given the tools to incite change,” said Valentina Alayon, who graduated this year with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and recently joined ASME’s marketing team as student and early career engagement and experience coordinator.

“Students studying engineering are looking to solve cancer, bring clean water to developing countries, and figure out ways to improve the lives of those living with disabilities,” she said. “Engineering is no longer viewed in terms of numbers and equations, but rather the impact that you are making in the lives of those who drive your work. That is why modern engineering culture is so different, that is why modern engineers look so different.”

In my visits to campuses throughout the country and in conversation with engineering students from around the world, I've seen the men and women of the Gen Z engineering community, as well as Millennials, express their passion for innovation. At events like ASME’s E-Fests—the next two are this month: E-Fest Asia Pacific at Delhi Technological University and E-Fest West in Pomona, Calif., one week later—students compete in ASME’s human-powered vehicle competitions, student design contests, additive manufacturing challenges, and technical paper competitions. Through these competitions, students demonstrate they can find innovative ways to solve engineering problems.

While participating in student challenges does not guarantee a job after school, industry recruiters say it is an experience they value as much as grade-point average. It’s the practical application of learning that makes these competitions important. E-Fest has generated support from large companies interested in recruiting because they can literally see the students apply their knowledge in real time. ASME hired Alayon after seeing her team compete in an HPVC competition at E-Fest West at UNLV last year and then noticing her leadership as the school’s principal E-Fest coordinator.

Student competitions showcase the best of Generation Z engineers. It’s their time to shine.

John G. Falcioni, Editor-in-Chief, Mechanical Engineering Magazine.

Reprinted from Mechanical Engineering magazine.
Register here for E-Fest West and East.