Bernie 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: Sorry

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.

Wikipedia and Mechanisms and Robotics

J. Michael McCarthy, May 3, 2012

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.

First, please do not ignore Wikipedia, at least not while Google is placing it at the top of most every search. You may dismiss its content, but your students and colleagues are reading it. In fact, 400 million people access Wikipedia every month, that is 13 million people every day. (2)

Next, remember that everyone can edit a Wikipedia article, whether or not they have a user account. Students around the world have great fun calling each other names in the article Simple machines, which has close to 3000 views per day. Wikipedia volunteers work tirelessly to check edits and identify and remove vandalism.

Lastly, regular Wikipedia editors have user names, and it is expected that their identities remain private, which eliminates claims to expertise. In practice, this means any editor can question any edit, and revert it to the original until the questioning editor is convinced. Such edit conflicts can be overcome by a third opinion, or more if needed, documented in written exchanges on the talk page of an article. The infrastructure to manage conflicts and vandalism gives Wikipedia its reputation as a massive, multi-player on-line role-playing game (MMORPG).

The focus of my effort was articles on machines and related topics, which is an infrequently traveled region of Wikipedia. Some articles such as Work and Power have close to 4000 views each day; but Four-bar linkage and Virtual work have around 200; while Kinematic chain and Screw axis bounce around 50 views per day. For comparison, Britney Spears and France receive 15-20,000 views per day.

This means, that I was often left alone in my editing activities. However, I did attract negative attention for edits to the articles Machine, Sprocket, Kinematics, Simple machine and Forward kinematics. In most cases I had to give up, because in remote corners of Wikipedia these are one-on-one conflicts that favor the status quo.

There is much to criticize in Wikipedia (3) and competing web-sites have been designed to increase the reliability of the information they provide. For example, Citizendium, created by Wikipedia’s co-founder Larry Sanger, requires editors to use their real names. Scholarpedia and Annotum are designed to support user-generated scholarly content. Another approach is iMechanica for “mechanics and mechanicians” hosted by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, which provides specific knowledge for a particular community. A similar site is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy found at Science magazine and Nature both have beautiful web-sites, but neither is designed to provide simple explanations for basic concepts.

The fact remains that the breadth and accessibility of Wikipedia supported by Google’s ranking system makes it the first stop for an overview of a particular topic. (4) And other sites such as and even Citizendium often reproduce Wikipedia articles. None-the-less, in my opinion, it is wise for teachers to disallow Wikipedia as a source, because errors can be persistent. (5) Then again, Wikipedia articles often include links to useful sources. In fact, while working on seemingly ordinary articles like Pulley, Block and tackle, and Inclined plane I was pleasantly surprised by insights found among these links.

Our university and industry colleagues form an international research community that is responsible for expanding, reworking and continuously evaluating what we know and can use in mechanisms and robotics. We prepare textbooks and research monographs, on-line lecture notes and videos for our colleagues and students. This activity continuously verifies and demonstrates the use of this knowledge, which the Internet and then make available around the world.

But where do elementary and high school teachers and the larger society go to find simple and reliable explanations of the basic principles of mechanisms and robotics? I may wish that it was an on-line source that we managed, but the real answer is Wikipedia. I believe our community cannot ignore this. We must make Wikipedia work for us, for our students, and for those who rely on our expertise. So, if the material you find in Wikipedia is not correct, then please fix it, or at least ask me to fix it.

(1) Jessica Guynn, Google’s new search formula results in some unhappy websites, March 10, 2011, Los Angeles Times.

(2) Noam Cohen, When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count? August 7, 2011, New York Times.

(3) Vipulnaik, Wikipedia criticism, and why it fails to matter, February 23, 2009,

(4) Lisa Spiro, Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?
Posted on September 1, 2008,

(5) Scott Jaschik, A Stand Against Wikipedia, January 26, 2007,

Wikipedia and Moment of Inertia

J. Michael McCarthy, April 15, 2013

Moment of inertia is not a moment when you feel inert, it is a technical parameter that defines the resistance you feel when you spin a tire on its axle. With two years of experience as a Wikipedia editor, and over 6500 edits on something like 70 different articles, I have to say I am having increasing moments of inertia in the non-technical sense.

Articles in Wikipedia have a charm that comes from a variety of editors adding what they feel helps a reader’s understanding. This can yield surprising connections with other sources, as well as a confusing mess. Errors can be frustrating, but then they are usually easily corrected. Furthermore, I have found this community kindly corrects typographical errors, and is attentive to removing the electronic version of graffiti.

However, just as I find out that Apple’s iBooks Author automatically includes Wikipedia as a source for its glossary, I am increasingly weary of what is probably the natural order of things.

And that brings me to moment of inertia in the technical sense. The Wikipedia article “Moment of inertia” is by far the most viewed of the articles that I have worked on with over 6000 views per day.

I was drawn to this article because over the years it had collected an interesting collage of theorems, calculations and examples that illustrate this mix of a body’s mass and shape, which is critical to the study of its movement. I added a section on planar movement and one on spatial movement that I felt augmented the existing topics, and provided a bridge to the more advanced topics. My impression was that it was a good article, so I recommended it to Wikipedia for “good article status.”

In responding to the conscientious and detailed recommendations of Wikipedia reviewers, I find that I have completely rewritten the article, replacing almost every detail of the original article. It seems clear that crowd-sourcing works for a non-authoritative introduction to a topic, but the good article process prefers authoritative contributions.

It is not a bad compromise, I suppose, but it has lead me to reshape and polish something that I had previously valued in its raw form.

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