I have had intermittent interactions with motorsport during my engineering career, principally with Formula 1, Formula SAE and Formula Student teams. The design, construction and competition involved in Formula Student generates tremendous enthusiasm amongst a section of the student community and enormously increases their employability. As a Department Chair at Michigan State University, I was a proud and enthusiastic sponsor of the MSU Formula SAE team. However, I find it increasingly difficult to support an activity that is associated with profligate expenditure of energy and resources – this is not the impression of engineering that should be portrayed to our current and future students. Engineering is about so much more than making a vehicle go around a track as fast as possible. See my posts on ‘Re-engineering Engineering‘ on August 30th, 2017, ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 or ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd, 2015.
There are many other challenges that could taken up by student teams, in competition if that encourages participation, which would benefit human-kind and the planet. A current hot topic in the UK media is the pollution of oceans by waste plastic [see for example BBC report]; so, engineering undergraduates could be challenged to design, construct and operate an autonomous marine vehicle that collects and processes plastic waste. It could be powered from the embedded energy in the waste plastic collected in the ocean. It would need to navigate to avoid collisions with other vessels, coastal features and wildlife, and to locate and identify the waste. These represent technological changes in chemical, control, electronic, materials and mechanical engineering – and probably some other fields as well. I have shared this concept with colleagues in Liverpool and there is some enthusiasm for it; maybe some competition from other universities is all that’s needed to get Formula Ocean started. The machine with the largest positive net impact on the environment wins!