eXtensions - Tuesday 24 October 2023

Pressure Cooker for Students: Mahidol Design Challenge

By Graham K. Rogers

MU Design

Looking towards Invent for the Planet next February, the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University, developed a workshop running over several days with the help of Alstom. Students gained experience identifying problems and developing solutions in teams. Some participants were working with students they had never met before. The experience sets them up for Invent for the Planet, but also gives a unique experience that textbooks and classrooms are unable to provide.

Over the last few years, the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University, has entered Invent for the Planet. This is run online and on-site by Texas A&M University at its College Station campus. The concept is that, over a weekend, teams of students at universities worldwide develop solutions to topical problems, presenting their ideas, including prototypes, to a panel of judges.

Mahidol Design Challenge
EGMU Team at Invent for the Planet 2023 - Screenshot from video feed

While the work is going on they can see and communicate with students working on the same problems at those other universities. The winning team at each location has to produce a video presentation within a few days. This is sent to Texas A&M where the best 5 from all the universities participating are selected. Those winning teams travel to College Station, TX and present their solutions to a panel of experts.

For the last two years students from the event at Mahidol University have made the journey to Texas, although they were not successful in the final stage, despite a good showing at the poster session. Nevertheless, all of the students said how valuable the experience was - from the local contest, through the visa process, raising funds, the journey, meeting other enthusiastic students and taking part in the final showdown.

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

The Department of Electrical Engineering had organized the events. In discussions those involved, concluded that many of those participating, while keen enough to take part, lacked some of the necessary skills: analysis, teamwork, presentation (pitching ideas). The students are so focused on their studies (and their grades) that few have the flexibility needed: at least at the start of the event. They lacked that (almost clichéd) ability to think outside the box. Once the problem was identified, those involved developed workshops to bring those skills out. These events also have a knock-on effect for those taking part in their studies.

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

The Faculty of Engineering has now taken over support for the events and the Dean, Dr. Thanapat Wanichanon, made an introductory speech motivating the students. Outside organizations, particularly Alstom, are also recognizing the benefits. Alstom has already recruited several students from the Faculty (and provided internships). The company provided support for this year's seed event: the Mahidol Design Challenge. There was the added attraction of internships with Alstom. Several mentoring teams from the company attended: a different team each day.

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

Rather than the weekend pressure cooker environment, this event was run over a few days: Monday outline and forming groups; Wednesday afternoon, work on the solutions and mentoring; Saturday, continuing the development with prototyping and the idea of pitching; Sunday, the final pitching of the ideas to an expert panel. It was good to see students from faculties outside Engineering as well as first year students among those signing up.

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

A couple of the students traveled each day from the Payathai campus in Bangkok where they study on the international Actuarial program run by the Faculty of Science. Students from the faculties of Religious Affairs (CRS), Information & Communication Technology (ICT), and Science (SC) also joined.

As the company was heavily involved, Alstom developed the 7 Needs Statements (shortened here):

  1. Promoting railway transportation to university members (students and staff);
  2. Developing a common fare system across all metro lines and alternative transport systems;
  3. Electrification expansion and improvements, especially for main line trains;
  4. Last-mile connectivity - from transit hubs or stations to final destination (business or home);
  5. With some delays to metro expansion, consider the need for a light railway or tram system.
  6. ECO system - enhancing footpaths and walkways as alternatives to motorcycles and taxis;
  7. Noise and pollution reduction as infrastructure is repaired or replaced.

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

These were explained in a video conference by experts from Alstom in the first session. Some of the company's experts came to the Wednesday session to mentor the students and were keenly involved in interactions with students. Over the next day or so, with the number of students, five groups worked on four of the ideas. We ended up with,

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

The groups worked on their solutions during the Wednesday afternoon session with help from mentors. On Saturday, they fine-tuned these with additional input from the mentors. The enthusiastic team from Alstom were particularly helpful and explained some of the potential pitfalls while offering encouragement. On Saturday afternoon the groups made the first presentations of their ideas. The team from Alstom and some of the mentors from the Faculty of Engineering provided input to help students improve their project ideas and the presentations.

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

It was clear from the final presentations on Sunday that many of the ideas had been taken on board. The students had also worked hard on the presentations although there were a couple of technical hiccups. There is a lesson to be learned there. As well as those attending the event on the final day, members of the Electrical Engineering Department set up a live broadcast, using a Facebook channel. It also went out via YouTube.

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

Mahidol Design Challenge

After lunch on Sunday, the judges' decisions were announced by Yatipat Hongthong, a 3rd year Chemical Engineering student, who uses the nickname Patrick, which he has used since he was a member of a group of Mahidol Students invited to the final presentations of Invent for the Planet at Texas A&M, 2 years ago. Prizes of 5,000 baht, 3,000 baht and 2,000 baht awarded to the winning groups were presented by Ms. Walaiporn Leelawannee, who is Bangkok Site MD, Head of Bangkok Signals & Infrastructure and the Bangkok Technology Center at Alstom

Mahidol Design Challenge Mahidol Design Challenge

First Place - Noise Reduction

Second Place - Eco system

Third Place - The Last Mile

Mahidol Design Challenge
The winning group: Noise Reduction

Not everyone was a winner, but all students come away with a sense of achievement. This is the first time for most of them that they have had to consider real world problems not outlined in a text book or class notes. They have had to apply new forms of analysis, while working in their teams with students they did not know beforehand. To come up with viable solutions for a range of problems in a couple of days is no mean task. Lessons were learned.

Mahidol Design Challenge
Student Helpers at the Mahidol Design Challenge - Photo, Aj Somnida

The event could not have taken place without the help of several volunteer students and Faculty support staff. We are now looking forward to Invent for the Planet four months down the road, in February.

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column in the Life supplement, he is now no longer associated with the Bangkok Post. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)


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