Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Engineer of the Future 3.0 Recap

After finals and a much needed break I'm finally back to school. Here's a much needed recap of the Engineer of the Future 3.0 conference:

This year the Engineer of the Future Conference was focused on how to motivate engineering students to prepare them better for industry.

The conference started off with a great presentation by Daniel Pink. Dan has presented in the past at TED talks.(link) Pink talked about how people work more efficiently when they are intrinsically motivated. He used multiple examples of experiments where participants were offered money to complete tasks. Given tasks where the solution was not clear the control groups that were not offered money actually completed their task faster than the groups with a monetary reward. When not offered a reward individuals work for themselves and tend to think outside the box.

Pink went on to talk about how some companies are experimenting with "20% time". Google is one such company that uses this new idea. Employees at Google are allowed to spend 20% of their time every week working on any project they choose. By giving employees control over what they work on Google has actually seen an increase in productivity.

Mr. Pink set the tone for the rest of the conference with his talk. Over the next 24 hours the buzz words at the conference were "intrinsic motivation".

After the opening talks we took a break for dinner and I went back to my hotel room to practice my presentation. The student Ignite session was later that night. The presentations were very interesting. One student talked about how he fixed up an antique car in high school. Another showed off a trebuchet she made with a club at school. I gave a presentation about FOSS@RIT and how we intrinsically motivate students by getting them involved in the open source community.(link)

The next day you could feel a new energy coming from the conference participants. Everyone was eager to talk and share their thoughts. Through the course of the day we were guided through group exercises to show just how powerful intrinsic motivation can be. This offered many opportunities to talk to people and network. Being an open source developer I took every opportunity I could to tell people about how open source projects can get students intrinsically motivated.

At lunch Sebastian Dziallas lead an Open Source meet and greet where we introduced a handful of students and professors to The Open Source Way. We were able to show off some of the tools and websites we use in the  open source community and several people were interested. I was really happy with the amount of discussion we were able to have.

The second half of the day was more interactive workshops. The last activity we did was very cool. Tables of people had to work on a poster with questions having us examine an object. We didn't find out until the end that half the groups could choose whatever object they wanted and the other half had to examine a disposable razor. My group chose a bike lock. Our assignment involved many open ended questions like "what properties are important to the function of this object?". Our table discussion eventually moved to human nature and why we even need locking devices in the first place. Later when we talked to a table with a razor we found out that their experience was much different. Their poster had very technical restricting questions with specific answers. One question required them to apply a complex equation to determine a property of the plastic used in the razor. The people from this group seemed like they did not enjoy their experience at all. Their answers were short and just specific enough to get by. Our group had verbose answers because we actually liked what we were talking about and it was interesting to us.

So I came out of this conference with a new understanding of how to better motivate myself in my own work as well as how to get others motivated in their's. I think open source can be tied in closely to this idea of intrinsic motivation. When I took the HFOSS class at RIT we were allowed to pick what project we would work on for the entirety of the class. This allowed me to pick up Transbot, a project that actually matters to me. Instead of working on some calculator or calendar program I was able to work on a project that will help others.

I think concepts from open source can be applied in education in many fields. In project based classes students can be given the option of picking up a project of their choice. Obviously the project must apply to the course material. By allowing students to take control of their education they will be intrinsically motivated to work hard and learn.


  1. Actually, the lunch BoF was much more the fault of Sebastian Dziallas than it was mine... he was the one who pinged the conference organizers and put it together, I mostly showed up. Just giving proper credit where credit is due. :)

  2. Oops my mistake. I'll edit that :D