It’s a common higher education mantra. Employers prefer workplace-ready graduates who augment their formal education with real-world experience and employability skills. Among many initiatives designed to bridge that gap, students in our School of Engineering are turning to the crucible of competitive motorsport.
The University’s approach champions formal education complemented by research-led teaching and independent learning. With opportunities such as live industrial projects, fieldwork and placements, studying here means more than choosing to sit in our lecture theatres. This is certainly true in engineering, where students have also taken to the racetrack.
The Edinburgh University Formula Student society (EUFS), which is supported by our Schools of Engineering and Informatics, is an interdisciplinary group of students who come together to compete in Formula Student. This annual competition pitches universities against each other as they design and build a formula-style race car, demonstrate its potential in a series of rigorous tests, and pitch their product to a hypothetical buyer. Different categories cover standard vehicles and driverless autonomous vehicles piloted by artificial intelligence (AI).
Oliver Hutchinson, Year 3 MEng Mechanical Engineering student and current President of EUFS, takes up the story: “EUFS was founded in 2014 by 10 students who had a love for engineering and motorsport and wanted to compete in Formula Student competitions around the world. We currently have 100 members who take part every year, divided into two teams – our Formula Student class team which utilises an internal combustion engine car and our Formula Student-AI team which uses a driverless electric vehicle.
“We have competed at the Formula Student UK competition for the last five years and had several successes including winning the AI-Dynamic Driving Test (DDT) category for three years running. Students can get involved in many ways. We receive around 80 applications a year to join the team and accommodate as many people as possible.”
What is Formula Student?
Over more than 20 years of competition, Formula Student has established itself as Europe’s premier educational engineering challenge. Backed by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and by a host of industry figures including its patron Formula One Managing Director of Motor Sports Ross Brawn OBE, it aims to nurture interest in engineering, develop talented mechanical engineers and encourage more people to adopt the career.
Each year more than 100 university teams from around the world compete, usually at Silverstone the iconic home of the British Grand Prix. Students produce and present their prototype, participating in rigorous static and dynamic tests to demonstrate to industry specialists that their vehicle is high performance yet low cost, reliable and easy to maintain.
These tests give students an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, technical analysis, engineering design and manufacturing skills in addition to transferable skills such as team work, business planning, time and project management, budgeting and presentation. This allows them to test, improve and demonstrate their capabilities, working with a complex integrated product in a demanding, competitive engineering environment.
Formula Student is widely viewed in the motorsport industry as the standard an engineering graduate should meet to successfully transition from university to the workplace. It is a kite-mark for real-world engineering experience, combining practical engineering with soft skills.
Stewart Smith, a senior lecturer and Deputy Director of Learning and Teaching for Student Experience in the School of Engineering, believes the benefits are clear: “I think that this activity is extremely valuable for students who are able to take part in these practical engineering projects. As well as being involved in them as technical activities it is real world engineering which gives them experience of project management, organisation, planning, preparation of funding applications and team working.
“Unlike most of their academic courses, especially later in their degrees, they will be working with students from other disciplines, not just other engineers. Many of these teams include members from across the University. This is much more like the experience they will have in the workplace once they graduate. That’s highly valued by employers as well.”
Oliver agrees: “The practical knowledge that our members develop is something that is supplementary to their university course and provides them with different skillsets. Manufacturing the cars is very enjoyable but Formula Student also allows members to develop soft skills such as communication, teamwork and presentation.
“It gives engineering students the excellent opportunity to network with industry, developing contacts that will be useful for them now and in years to come when looking for internships and jobs. All our members have access to industry-standard software which will further improve their transition to industry and their education. One of the biggest benefits is employability – a lot of motorsport companies will look closely for involvement in Formula Student and being part of a team is a great chance to get a dream job.”
One of the students drawn to that opportunity is Aisyah Jeffrey Nizam, a Year 3 BEng Mechanical Engineering student who has no doubt about the benefits: “I’ve got mentorship and guidance from lab assistants, senior members, alumni, and other associates about practical knowledge on design and manufacturing processes, which are valuable to me and complement my lessons in classes.
“Engineering concepts such as structural design are the fundamentals that we use to create a strong and robust space frame. It is also a huge opportunity for me to learn and conceptually start up a business model with a manufacturing plan and financial management. I have practiced a lot of the theories from the industrial management and manufacture syllabus.
Aisyah believes EUFS and Formula Student have had a positive impact on her career prospects: “I plan to get involved in the automotive and naval structure industries upon graduation, especially in the design and manufacturing processes.
“To achieve these goals, engineering and technical knowledge alone would not be sufficient. As engineers, we are now expected to come up with sustainable and cost-efficient solutions.
“Active engagement with the EUFS projects prepares me for this, providing an insight to the real engineering-work environment. I have been exposed to a lot of non-engineering and business-related tasks while also working on the technical design.”
A recurring theme is that the formal education provided by the University and the practical engineering challenge of Formula Student complement each other. Stewart Smith says this is something the School of Engineering looks to build on further: “We typically have at least one student each year working on something linked to a student-led initiative, such as Formula Student, as part of their honours project in engineering.
“As we move forwards, I hope there will be more scope to have students work on such projects through student- led, individually created courses. This should fit in well with our new Engineering Year 2 where most students will select 20 credits of optional courses. The practical, design and transferable skills obtained through these activities will help to reinforce the formal learning from our courses as well.”
The School of Engineering backs a number of student-led initiatives and technical projects through direct support and through its new Student Innovation Fund, which comes from alumni donations.
Stewart Smith explains how EUFS has benefited and where the School’s support for future engineers is turning next: “We funded around £8,000 of new initiatives at the end of 2020, including contributions to EUFS for new pit garage setups for competitions and a separate project for a student working on battery technology.
“While many planned activities to support practical projects have been disrupted by the pandemic, we are developing a new makerspace workshop with alumni and industrial support for student led project work. Outside of the pandemic, student-led initiatives are provided with access to teaching and research labs as well as technical staff support and we hope to move that forwards as soon as possible. This includes a collaboration with Fife College at Rosyth where student groups will be able, once rules allow, to access workshop space and work with apprentices and students there.”
Oliver says the EUFS team has stayed hard at work during the pandemic. They are eager to compete in Formula Student again this year and hope to take as many people as possible to Silverstone to experience the excitement of seeing the car compete:
“We have had very little laboratory access this year and this has heavily affected the manufacture of both cars. We are currently in the process of trying to get back into the laboratories in the School of Engineering and are optimistic that we can finish the car for competition this year.
“During the pandemic we have continued to design and conduct our meetings virtually. I think the team has adapted well to this and team spirit is high – if anything, I believe people have become closer during this difficult time.”
Across the University, sustainability is high on the agenda and EUFS is already addressing the future of motorsports engineering: “We are taking our first AI car with an electric vehicle powertrain to competition this year. This is a first for us and the design and development has been very interesting for those involved. With the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, designing and building electric vehicles is more important than ever and experience of this for our members will be vital.”
Image credits: Edinburgh University Formula Student, Aisyah Jeffrey Nizam; Formula Student/Institution of Mechanical Engineers.