Mathcad Lessons from/for FIRST Robotics

Over the last year I have represented PTC on behalf of Mathcad at many FIRST Robotics events.  The 2012 season culminated during the last week of April at the World Championships in St. Louis. It was my first visit to St. Louis.

Charles Lindberg and the Spirit of St. Louis

Adventurer Charles Lindbergh stands in front of his record setting monoplane

I must say that hosting the FIRST World Championships is a sure way to give your city a good reputation. During World Championships, the Spirit of St. Louis is very much alive. All great cities need a tagline. If St. Louis continues to host FIRST Worlds, the city’s tagline may soon be “What happens in St. Louis changes the future!”

Teaching the Product Development Process

With fond memories of last year’s Rebound Rumble still in our heads, we at PTC are busily preparing our 2012-2013 FIRST Programs. This past week I have been working hard on our Hands-on-Workshop curriculum.

Within the FIRST Robotics ecosystem, one learns very quickly to stick to what one does best. For PTC, sticking to what we do best means enabling customers to improve their performance by providing the tools that they need to excel in product design, engineering, and service.  Consequently, our FIRST Robotics Hands-on-Workshops educate teams (participants and mentors) on best practices in modern product design and development. We teach engineering concepts and skills using the design of a robot as a context, and, Mathcad Prime, Windchill, and Creo as elements of a modern engineering tool set.

Chris Hartmann Teaching Mathcad Prime to FIRST teams at a NYPRO Facility in Clinton, MA

Teaching Mathcad Prime to FIRST teams at a NYPRO Facility in Clinton, MA

During the last year my colleague, Jordan Cox, and I visited with many FIRST teams in person or through a virtual meeting. During these visits and our workshops we learned two valuable lessons:

  •   Some FIRST teams perform incredible feats of engineering
  •   Many FIRST teams build robots while performing very little engineering

We see a great deal of opportunity in these observations. The potential for today’s young people to engage in real engineering design and manufacturing challenges is incredible – they are the first generation to have tools like Creo, Mathcad, and National Instrument’s Labview at their fingertips.  Thanks to Lego, many of today’s teenagers have been building robots for ten or more years by the time they make it the FIRST Championships. As a result, it is possible to teach real engineering concepts and skills to teenagers while they engage in robotics.

An FTC Robot, rumble ready, designed and rendered with PTC's Creo

An FTC Robot, rumble ready, designed and rendered with PTC’s Creo

Armed with our experiences from this past year, Jordan and I are revising our FIRST Curriculum to better support FIRST teams. Our new objective-centered curriculum focuses on designing and engineering a successful robot. Phase 1 is systems engineering and concept design. We are currently working on the second phase, Detailed Design, Prototype and Test.

Detailed Design with Mathcad Prime

As a former middle and secondary mathematics teacher, I pay attention to the ways that mathematics comes into use when FIRST teams work on their robots. One of the observations that I have made in the last year is that for many high school students, even those who would choose to join a robotics team, the mathematical preparation that they are receiving in school is not enabling them to see the relevance of math concepts in their product design and engineering projects. Jordan and I believe that Mathcad Prime has capabilities that can better enable students to demonstrate their mathematical knowledge and skills while participating in FIRST Robotics. We are working hard to add elements to our curriculum that will bridge the gap between math class and the FIRST shop.

Mathcad Prime

Engineering Documentation with Mathcad Prime

In teaching students about the Detailed Design, Prototype, and Test phase of the Product Development Process, we currently present five themes that we believe are important for FIRST participants to learn. At the same time, we think that they have relevance for and connections with students’ experience in the secondary school curriculum.

Here are the themes we are teaching using activities based in Mathcad:

  1. Engineering notebooks are important records of your intellectual property
  2. Unit conversion is one of the greatest sources of error in engineering
  3. Following established conventions for mathematical  and symbolic notation are critical to the successful practice of engineering
  4. Creating standardized and reusable worksheets enables engineering teams to increase the accuracy of their engineering calculations and the efficiency of their workflow
  5. Engineers write reports to communicate

Mathcad users will obviously recognize the value that Mathcad Prime offers to FIRST teams who choose to improve their performance in any of these areas. Yet we do not feel we have fashioned a biased list. What do you think? We want to make sure that we are teaching sound engineering practices in our workshops.

Let Us Know

If you were going to teaching Detailed Design, Prototyping and Testing to high school age engineering students, what would you teach them about engineering calculation and documentation? How would you teach it?

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