Learning Otherwise

What is the most important thing that an Engineering student should learn in four years of university studies? Many would say it is technical knowledge that primes. Skills on the job, depth of understanding of complex problems in chemistry, mathematics, or physics. But that is a given. It is the basis, the foundation. In that sense, it will be acquired before graduation, no matter what. Otherwise, there will be no diploma. But is this the most important thing?

A group of young professors and researchers from the Middle East decided that even though technical skills are a must, they are not what matters most. The struggle of today’s teacher is often about how to link technology with traditional classroom settings. This preoccupation is not only the trouble of the school teacher. It permeates all levels of education and goes right to the top. Universities get students who are tired of sitting behind desks, memorizing text and passively absorbing information.

This is how the GCC Robotics Challenge came to be. The idea was born by looking at the map of the Gulf Cooperation Council. What if it became a chessboard but instead of chess, students put their technical skills to use and made robots confront one another on it? Very quickly a site sprang out of it with the descriptions of the tasks. Engineering students would create their robots based on a series of tasks that the robots will have to perform: grasp objects, follow lines, push and pull.

While it sounds simple, the task to build such a robot requires technical knowledge. However, it also gives the students to occasion to put things in practice and to have a real hands-on experience that can lead on to professional experience in the field. Rather than sitting in a classroom, the teams of students would have to solve problems and come up with solutions. They would learn the other way  –  find the knowledge they need, rather than gather knowledge they may not need.

The 2nd GCC Robotics Challenge final took place in Qatar on April 29th. It gathered 12 teams with their supervisors and many guests across the disciplines. Student volunteers were the masters of ceremony, leading the rounds. Their professors were judges, as experts in their fields, but for the most part, the entire competition was done for and by the students. With the support of the IET and IEEE, the events was a success that shows how education can be done differently.

Education does not have to happen in a traditional classroom. It can happen anywhere. After all, education is life. Why not take the real world into the classroom, or maybe even, take the classroom out into the real world. We hope that in the future, we will see many more educational innovations like this one.