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Bernard Roth: The Achievement Habit

The Achievement Habit

The Achievement Habit

I found this book to be remarkable. First, because the initial chapters resonate so clearly with my own experiences over the past 10 years guiding large student teams through project-based learning to complete the design, manufacturing, testing and eventual participation in intercollegiate race car engineering competitions. Initially, I thought what was required was technical expertise so I focussed on preparing the science and technology in an effective way so the students could understand it. Then, it seemed the challenge was poor fabrication skills, so I coordinated specialized training and found advisors to help.

However, I eventually found that the real challenge lay in helping the students to understand how to work together. For example, I now know that every year I must manage the crisis that students experience as they face the enormity of a project that requires that they trust each other. Because students instinctively control everything that impacts their success, they resist collaboration and take on more and more until they are overwhelmed.

This is one of many principles that Bernard Roth presents in the first four chapters, and the one I can rightly say that I stumbled upon myself in 10 years of involvement in project-based learning. So it is satisfying to see his clear explanations and examples of how these principles are critical to project-based engineering education.

But the real reason that I find this book to be remarkable is that the last three chapters anticipate, explain and provide guidance for recent deep concerns that I have regarding the future of my project students. Let me try to explain.

While I know Bernard Roth well, it is primarily as a masterful research scientist, who regularly over the course of his career formulated and solved problems that are now considered to be at the foundation of Robotics theory. I also knew that he was part of a team of faculty who regularly provided creativity workshops around the world, and that this activity evolved into the academic principles that guide the successful Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University. Yet, I was never directly involved in one of these workshops, though I can now see that exercises in a design course at Stanford years ago were precursors to what he has refined and presents in this book.

For over 20 years, I taught engineering courses by working diligently to organize the material in what I thought was a clear and compelling way, present it to the students, and engage them with homework and tests to see if they could repeat back to me what I felt was important. As I got better at this, I became more efficient, providing students a complete package of notes, well-design homework exercises, and tests that guided their studies. And they became more efficient as well, providing me what I wanted with minimum effort. However, I began to get the sense that my students did not consider this experience to be any more meaningful than a hazing process for admission to a fraternity.

My intuition was verified dramatically, when I became involved in project-based learning. After almost two years working for a robotics company and experiencing the messy challenge of guiding a team of engineers to a successful product launch, I found that I had little interest in the lecture, homework, and test process. So an unlucky group of students, who were hoping I would just sign their advisor paperwork and leave them alone, found that I wanted to meet with them weekly. I had no idea what they needed, so I lectured to them about the technology of their project and how companies are organized to accomplish the kind of designs that they were working on. They built the worst mini-baja race car ever, but we made it to the competition and it was an amazing experience. Furthermore those students went on to great success, probably now knowing what not to do in engineering design.

I have since advised larger and larger groups of students working on more challenging technology, and I even started my own race so my students could compete with other college and high school teams in the design of energy efficient race cars. Somewhere along the line, I stopped lecturing on the science and technology of race cars and focussed on teamwork. I have found that our students have plenty of knowledge that they do not use, so providing more information is no help. In contrast, it is simple things, like what is addressed in Bernard Roth’s initial chapters, that they need to make progress. Things like “stop trying and start doing,” “learn by building prototypes,” and my favorite for beginners, “do not make things up, just say you do not know,” and “listen to what is being asked, not what you think is being asked.” Combine this with identifying goals and requirements, organizing shared effort and a division of labor, add regular progress reports and effective communication, and the results are stunning.

And this brings me to the last three chapters of this book. If the goal of teaching is to verify that a student has received a particular package of knowledge, then it is easy to conclude that it is the student’s fault, if they are not able to use this knowledge successfully. In contrast, because project-based learning results in something that explicitly demonstrates the capabilities of a student team, it is difficult to blame a student who has achieved an outstanding outcome in their project work for any difficulty they have finding a successful engineering career. Unfortunately, I can think of a number of very capable students, who demonstrated outstanding technical knowledge, communication skills, and management expertise, and who either had difficulty finding the engineering job they wanted, or chose to leave good engineering jobs for various reasons. There is no doubt that every case is different, but for some time now I have felt that there was a dimension to project-based engineering education that goes beyond the design project and involves life experiences and expectations. I have tried to discuss this with colleagues without much success, and therefore I was stunned to see the boldness of Bernard Roth’s explicit choice to include one’s life trajectory, meaning and perception of success as part of the challenge of project-based learning. It will take me time to process this, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the right insight at the right time.

Bernard Roth could have written a landmark book in Robotics, and perhaps will in the future, but thankfully he has chosen to capture decades of experience in what is now known to be a critically important part of engineering education. There are many books on the design process that include exercises for creativity. However, there is no book that addresses so directly the many dimensional challenge involved in guiding a student team through the difficulties of working together to accomplish a complex design and manufacturing goal, and, as I see now, their personal goals. Some may consider the focus of this book too far from the normal concerns of engineering, but I disagree. And while his insights may have broad applications beyond engineering, I know that they can provide a practical benefit to my project teams.


Earth Day 2015

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My son John and his partner Roddy, who together form Change for Balance, filmed this video including the postscript which was filmed on-site in Africa.


Workshop Presentations: 21st Century Kinematics

21st Century Kinematics

21st Century Kinematics

The NSF Workshop on 21st Century Kinematics at the 2012 ASME IDETC Conference in Chicago, IL on August 11-12, 2012 consisted of a series of presentations and a book of supporting material prepared by the workshop contributors.

The book is now available at 21st Century Kinematics–The 2012 NSF Workshop.

And here are the seven primary presentations given at the workshop.

  1. Computer-Aided Invention of Mechanisms and Robots. J. Michael McCarthy, Professor, University of California, Irvine.
  2. Mechanism Synthesis for Modeling Human Movement. Vincenzo Parenti-Castelli, Professor, University of Bologna.
  3. Algebraic Geometry and Kinematic Synthesis. Manfred Husty, Professor, University of Innsbruck.
  4. Kinematic Synthesis of Compliant Mechanisms. Larry Howell, Professor, Brigham Young University.
  5. Kinematics and Numerical Algebraic Geometry. Charles Wampler, Technical Fellow, General Motors Research and Development.
  6. Kinematic Analysis of Cable Robotic Systems. Vijay Kumar, Professor, University of Pennsylvania.
  7. Protein Kinematics. Kazem Kazerounian, Professor, University of Connecticut.

Colleagues joined in with two additional presentations:

Many thanks to the contributors and the attendees for an outstanding workshop.


Wikipedia and mechanisms and robotics

Wikipedia logo JMR Logo

Type “mechanism” or “robotics” into and the first items to appear are Wikipedia articles. In fact, chances are that any technical term in mechanisms and robotics, such as “machine,” “gear,” or “inverse kinematics,” will yield Wikipedia articles on the first page.

Internet marketers work hard to achieve first page rankings in Google’s search algorithm using techniques known as search engine optimization (SEO). In response Google regularly revises its algorithm to reduce the presence of web-sites that have poor content but high rankings, a sign of effective SEO. (1) A revision introduced in early 2011 seems to like Wikipedia.

When teaching, I check to see what my students find on-line with search terms like “four-bar linkage” and “mechanical advantage,” even “screw theory” and “quaternions.” Last year I became so frustrated with the poor quality of the articles appearing at the top of my searches, that on May 27, 2011 I created a user account and entered Wikipedia as a novice editor.

I am approaching one year and 3,800 edits on over 60 articles on Wikipedia. While I could not repair everything that I felt was wrong or misleading, I am claiming success, because the culture of Wikipedia imposes limits on what can be done.

This experience has sharpened my appreciation for the challenge of managing information on the Internet. Before I get to this, let me share some advice regarding the world that is Wikipedia.



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