Interview with the Laurentian University 2017 OEC Senior Design Team

The Laurentian University Bharti School of Engineering 2017 Senior Design Team (L-R): Matt Bennison, Colin Roos, Stephane Labine, Aidan Simpson.

Over the past three years, Colin Roos, Matthew Bennison, Aidan Simpson, and Stephane Labine have represented Laurentian University’s Bharti School of Engineer as a Junior or Senior Design Team. They have participated in three Ontario Engineer Competitions (OEC), winning twice (2015 & 2016) and coming in second the third time (2017). Each year they qualified for the Canadian Engineering Competition (CEC) and won the Canadian Junior Design title in 2015.

In short, they are the most successful OEC/CEC quartet Laurentian has ever produced. I sat down with them to discuss these competitions, what they’ve learned over the years, and what suggestions they might have for future teams.


Let’s start with just the general overview. For people that have never been to OEC or CEC, and have never taken part in a design competition, can you walk me through what’s expected?

SL: Basically you get there –the competition’s at a different university every year– and there are teams from almost every university that participate in Senior and Junior Design. Teams of four. You go there and you have no idea what’s gonna happen. You’re given your problem statement and you’re given, depending on the competition, six to ten hours to come up with the design, build that design out of the limited materials that they give you…

AS: And then put up a whole presentation together to show what you’ve built to a bunch of judges.

MB: Everything has to be done within that time frame.

AS: For OEC, it’s generally by 3am. So expect a long day. Usually you have to drive there, then you have a dinner/reception thing, get your challenge, and then you start building around eight or so and then you go to three in the morning.

SL: And then the day after you have to present your whole solution.

AS: There’s a chance you’ll be presenting at nine in the morning, which means you’ve got to be up for seven to have breakfast, get on the bus. It’s a jam-packed weekend, but it is a lot of fun.

MB: The Canadian ones are a lot more spread out. So you kind of get the nice gift of –if you did well in Ontario– you get to sleep in before your presentation the next day.

SL: They allot six hours for sleep, but by the time you get back to the room and practice your presentation, the reality is you get three hours, probably.

So you’re presented with a particular challenge and you’re given some rules that are going to govern that challenge. What are some of the things you’ve had to do? You’ve done this six times, so we don’t need to go over all six of them, but what are some examples of the sort of thing that people might be asked to do?

SL: The best example might be our first competition because that was when we were first introduced to it. You had this model dam and you had to move objects and stay within that play area. You had to build a crane-type device.

AS: But your thing had to be self-supporting and be able stand with a 6″x6″ box. It could be as high as you wanted. So the challenge was just to design something that would free stand within that, but then you could also reach stuff that was two-and-a-half to three feet away and be maneuverable where you could put things underneath cables…

SL: And you’re just given super-limited materials.

MB: Purely mechanical design with twine, balsa wood, foam board, and popsicle sticks. The Junior Design is usually more based on that kind of stuff.

AS: And it’s budgeted too where you can buy materials but it goes into your costs and usually they have some sort of breakdown on marking. It’s either the cheapest team gets a certain amoung of points and they’ll teir it like that. Or it will be, based on how much you spend, they’ll have a set number points. So if you spend under 600 credits you get a certain amount of points… So always look into the how price breakdown goes because, if you have something that’s not as good but is way cheaper you’ll end up winning just on that.

How are these events evaluated then? We’ve talked about cost. Obviously performance factors into that. The presentation. Are there other things that are being evaluated?

SL: Usually the three main ones are design –so that includes the price, originality, and all that stuff– and there’s a testing score, which is just strictly how did you do in the game.

AS: Usually, tt is broken down very specifically on what’s worth points and how you get your points. So that’s where you really want to take a good luck at the rule book and figure out your strategy before you start designing a thing.

SL: And then there’s the presentation.

AS: Yes, the presentation. Just how well you show your design, how well you go over the actual problem itself, how you operate as a team. So if two people in the group are doing all the actual talking you are not going to get as good a mark in terms of group work. So you want to make sure that in your presentation everything is pretty well spread out between all of you and you all have a task, as well. We found it really easy just to put a Gantt chart in to show who is doing what at what times. That kind of answers all their questions in terms of “who built it?”, “who did the programming?”, “who came up with the design?”, “who did the presentation?” It’s all right there and doesn’t take up too much time of the presentation.

CR: You do your presentation first of all the Saturday morning. During that presentation they are judging for both the design component as well as the presentation component. On average, 60% of your mark is happening during that 20 minute presentation. The remaining 40% happens in the afternoon which is the actual testing.

AS: That’s usually the way it goes, except when we were in Montreal they did the design component after testing. So it ended up that testing turned into being worth way more. Only one team got like the absolute minimum score and everyone else got zeros. It’s kind of figure out who’s the best of the teams that didn’t work. The best of the zeroes! It kind of screwed us up because we had one of the only designs that actually get this one component on the board but, because it didn’t work when we implemented it, we kinda got nothing for it. Versus, if they had done the design beforehand, we probably would have gotten more points.

MB: It’s either, they review your design before you use it or they review it after.

CR: For Ontario’s, it has always been that they review before you test it.

MB: The one nice thing with the presentation, that we’ve always found, if you come off as more thankful to the judges for spending their time. They’re coming there for a weekend, spending their time at these competitions to listen to a bunch kids basically play with foam board and balsa wood. So, if you’re thankful — “Hey, thanks for your time!”– then they’re a lot more attentive to what you’re saying.

AS: Keep in mind too that most judges generally will stay up during most of the build time checking in on stuff and then they have to be there for the very first presentations. They’ve had just as little sleep as everyone else.

MB: Usually less.

AS: If you keep that in mind that they’re going to be tired too and go in and try to bring the energy up.

CR: When we walk in the room, we always take the time to introduce ourselves individually to each of the judges and say good morning. It kind of makes the personal connection with them.

MB: And it comes off more professional. Whereas a lot of teams will go in and give their presentation and then leave. The judges kind of become less of a person and more just like “the judges.”

AS: You are usually presenting to three or four judges, so you can’t really take the same approach you would if you do a class presentation where you’re presenting to 30, 40 people. You might as well take that extra second to be more personal.

MB: Didn’t we have one judge come up to us and say, “Oh yeah, those are the guys that shook our hands?”

CR: He brought his kids. I shook his kids hands and they were all pumped.

MB: And he literally remembered the next time he saw us. “Oh yeah, Laurentian! You’re those guys.” If you can be memorable… I think that was one thing that really helped us with our later Ontario career engineering competitions. The judges remembered us.

CB: Be memorably for the right reasons, though.

These are industry folks, right?

SL: Usually Hatch is a pretty big sponsor for the Ontario one and you probably have two Hatch judges in every competition and other companies also.

Because everything’s organized by the students, but the judging is not by the host students.

AS: No, it’s usually by different people from the companies that sponsor them.

SL: We’ve had professors too.

In terms of this group… You’ve been really successful. Until someone tells me otherwise, because I don’t think anyone keeps records on these things, I will assume that you are the most successful engineering competition team in the history of Canada [laughter from the guys] because you’ve gone to six competitions over three years. You’ve gone to OEC three times, and qualified each time for CEC which is impressive because only two teams get to go in every event. You guys have been really successful. Can you attribute that to anything? It it the makeup of your group? Is it the way you approach problems? Is it something about the way you guys present? What is the secret sauce?

MB: I think there are two things really stand out with us and one is our presentation. Almost every year we’ve done it, we’ve been told that we have the best presentation out of anybody. I mean, at the same time, we sometimes we’ve had the best design out of everybody, so you can’t attribute it just to that. But I think presentation, like we’ve said, is the first thing anybody sees out of you.

I think the second thing that really has been successful for us is every time we’ve actually won a competition we sat down and –honestly, probably the first couple hours of the competition– we just figure out what our design is. Because everybody kinda rushes to it usually. “We’re gonna do this and this is what we’re building.” But every time we’ve won, we sat down and we just took our time, and we said, “OK. What do we need to do? What about this? What about this?” Even if we come up with the best idea right from the start, we always hear Colin telling us, “OK, give me another idea that’s better then this.”

AS: Or, “What can go wrong with this one? What are the weak points of this?”

MB: We just try to tear apart every idea until we get to the point that we say, “Well, it could go wrong here, here, and here. But its the best idea we have.”

AS: And in doing that, you can throw that in your presentation. “We thought of this, we thought of this, we thought of this.” Other teams might go down that route, but if you have reasons for why that’s a worse idea overall and you bring that up in the presentation, that will stick in the judges’ minds. “Well, other teams did that but they never considered that, they never brought that up as a possible issue.”

SL: Another thing to add on to what Matt and Aidan said, I think that the make-up of our team is a huge factor. We all bring different strengths, and where one of us lacks another one always excels.

AS: And we know each other’s strengths too. If it comes down to three of us think one thing, one thinks the other, we will usually go with the group. But if it is split, or people don’t care, we’ll go with whoever we trust the most in that sort of aspect.

SL: We also always, when we start thinking through our design, we always read the rules to figure out where we can get the most points. In the end, it’s about getting the most points in whichever way we can.

MB: And, basically, loopholes. Our first competition that we did and we won was the junior design at OEC. It was because we read it and it’s very obvious that they’re telling you build a crane. But we looked at and we’re like, “Well, you don’t have to build a self-standing crane. You could build a little toy arm to grab stuff.” So we built something that, realistically, you couldn’t make large-scale but…

AS: Looking for where the points are. Does it have to be scalable? Because the challenge for the first one was based on this dam model that the thing we come up with, you couldn’t scale it up to a real-life dam. But it worked really, really good for this sort of thing. Versus people who built cranes that you could scale up are too finicky and there’s too much going on to try to work at this sort of level… So really look at where the points are awarded and focus your design around that.

MB: Junior Design at CEC was the exact opposite. We built something that didn’t perform well, but when we were explaining it, we’re saying… Everybody else had built nets for it, which have a lot of drag, and we built a rake. So we were really pointing out that you won’t have nearly as much drag with this and it will save money on petrol, and this and that. We had a judge come up to us after and say, “You guys won, because yours is the only one that would work in real life.”

AS: But scalability was a huge factor. Basically, for the design portion of points, it all came down to scalability. Was your design scalable? Versus other times it might come down to how reliable is your actual model in the challenge itself.

SL: Read the rules.

AS: Really. Read the rules over and over and highlight all the stuff that’s important.

You have six or eight hours and you spent the first hour just shooting ideas around?

MB: At least the first hour.

AS: We spent the first hour doing that and then we would usually go look at the materials we could buy. We’ll have general ideas of what we think we might want to do and then look at the materials start thinking, “OK, what would we need to buy for this?” Then we’ll get more specific on what parts we need. We usually don’t start building until we are about two and a half hours in.

SB: The only problem with that is that sometimes some of the parts that we want to buy from the store are limited resources. So if we really think our design is going to need that, we will but it right off the bat to make sure that we will have that later on.

You start building maybe half-way through?

SL: Yeah, half-way through.

AS: The actual building usually takes the least amount of time. That, and putting our PowerPoint together. They each may take an hour, an hour and a half.

So you are doing those concurrently?

SL: Usually at the end it is the programming and the PowerPoint that get done at the same time. The building is all done and we’re just trying to figure out the rest of our programming and electrical.

AS: Fine-tuning it. Or just making tweaks to the actual design, like changing where battery packs are for weight distribution.

You said that you ended up having a good mix of skills in your group of four. Was that purposeful or did it just work out that way?

SL: It honestly just worked out that way. Me and Colin started the team and he had mentioned that Aidan was a student he was TAing that would be a great fit. So, hey, why not? And then our last member dropped out a couple days before the competition. So I was sitting in class, poked Matt in the shoulder –I didn’t know his name was Matt– and asked him, “Hey, what are you doing this weekend? Nothing? You wanna come to Toronto?” “I got some time, I guess.” So then I found out his name was Matt after that.

AS: He seemed like someone easy to get along with. Let’s ask this guy.

SL: We were driving to Toronto with two strangers and everything ended up just working out. The stars aligned.

MB: It is strange just how all our skills worked out. For example, in presentations I am a little sillier and trying to be more personable. You have the balance of “Hey, how’s it going?” and professional at the same time. It’s the same thing when we were designing. I know a lot of the time I’ll come up with something and say, “This seems really simple, but why don’t we do this?” And then you have Aidan who says, “Oh, and then we can add this on.” Everything that we have builds onto each other which is, like Steph just said, very lucky. We were just like “I guess we’ll just go to Toronto for a weekend” and then three years later…

AS: But definitely going into any senior competitions you do want to have someone that knows how program an Arduino.

MB Absolutely.

AS: If you went in with just mechanical people that hadn’t had any experience with that, you’ld be dead in the water, I think.

Is it fair to say that these design competitions really favour mechatronic/mechanical students?

SL: It definitely favours the mechatronics, I think, overall. Because you have mechanical aptitude, as well as program software/electrical aptitude. In the senior design competitions you need all that electrical knowledge, but in junior you’re fine.

MB: Actually, more recently, the past two years that we’ve gone for senior design, the junior design has had a little bit of electrical in it.

AS: But it is just like, “Can you wire up DC motors and batteries?”

MB: Nothing crazy. But some people have shown up and they have no electrical background and they are just a little bit confused.

CR: The other thing about our team is that we have all the skills but as soon as there’s a skills gap –we require information, we require new skills– at the competition, there is never a hesitation for somebody to step up and say, “Oh, I can go sit down and learn that skill for an hour.” You have to have people that a ready and willing to learn right on the job.

And able to do that.

CR: Yes.

You have a group with a good mix of skills. For future teams that want to take part in Junior Design or Senior Design –assuming they get a good group, that they work well together, and have a good skill mix– what are some specific suggestions or pieces of advice? What wisdom do you have to impart to teams coming in the future?

SL: There’s a few, I think. One of them is always read the rules. We’ve talked a lot about that already; I don’t think we need to go over that again. Another one, I think, is always have fun with it. I’m probably the one on the team who is always trying to be serious. You know, “Win! Win! Win!” These guys always bring me a notch back. “You know what, Steph, if we don’t win it’s okay.” So have some fun with it.

When Matt was talking about the balance of silly and professional, I was wondering who was bringing the professional. So that’s you?

SL: Yeah. It balances itself out. Have fun with it and don’t be scared to try new ideas. Something a bit riskier is sometimes worth the risk for the reward.

MB: You have to be willing to fail. For example, our OEC last year, we ended up winning but part way through we almost fried our Ardunino because we’re just doing stuff that we were not totally sure of. It’s kind of one of those things where, if you don’t take the risk and try it out, you won’t know if it works. At the same time, you might take the risk and it blows up. You just kinda have to be willing to do that and not be too down on yourself. If you come out of the competition saying “Oh, if we just changed this one thing we would have won!” Because pretty much any team, if they changed just one thing, would have won.

It is crazy how much you learn to be able to do things in a limited timeframe. That one of the biggest things that you get. I think before, I’d look at something and say, “I’m gonna have to take some time to learn that.” But now I can look at it, like, “I can do that in a couple hours.” Because that’s what you have to do in these competitions to be able to succeed.

AS: And being willing to adapt on the fly too. You might have had an idea that you thought was really good, and after preliminary testing it’s not working anywhere near as well as we thought… Always have a Plan B. Don’t get too dead-set on something that you can’t realize when it’s not as good idea as you thought.

MB: Don’t fall in love with an idea and it ends up working at 80 percent of what you need it to work at.

AS: At CEC this year, we had a 10 hour build time, and we had to completely tear down our robot we had built and… Not start from scratch, but we knew, “We’ll do this instead. This should work.” We took the good parts of our idea, which was that it was a fairly manoeuvrable robot, and rebuilt it with different actuating elements.

MB: We changed it all with an hour and half to go.

AS: We ended up doing a lot better than I think we otherwise would have. And those sort of challenges are good to include in your presentation. The judges like to see that aspect: you thought of something, you tried it, and then you made improvements. If you completely redo something the last couple hours, let the judges know about that sort of thing. They’re not going to look at you, like, “You idiots! You couldn’t figure it out from the get-go.” They’ll look at it as, “You figured out something wasn’t working. You improved on it. You made something better.”

MB: Which is what you have to do in real life.

SL: The key words Matt said there is that you don’t want to fall in love with your idea. You want to be able to really criticize it from a third-person view. Is this actually good? Is it going to work?

MB: With a lot of our ideas, one person will come up with basic idea and just argue for it. Usually me; I argue a lot about stuff. And we just argue, argue, and argue about it and we decide, “Well, if I can punch holes in your argument, then there’s no reason we should do it. But if we can’t, then maybe it’s pretty good idea.” I think that’s, like we’ve said previously, that’s basically what the basis of our whole success has been.

AS: Everything we build, we try to keep it as simple and reliable as we can. A lot of teams overdo stuff. It’s a limited time frame. You don’t have the best materials, usually. Balsa wood. Foam board. Stuff like that. So you don’t want to do something that’s will work amazing if everything goes just right because rarely do things go just right in these competition. You have to expect that stuff is going to go a little wrong. You’re not going to be able to quite fine tune your controls as well as you thought you would.

MB: Last year year at OEC we built an Arduino-controlled stick that could move left-and-right and up-and-down. Waterloo built one that had inverse kinematics and they’re moving the tip with elbow joints and I don’t know how many servos they were using. They came in second, we can first because ours was simple and was just super-easy to use. Basically, if you can’t come up with a good idea, come up with something simple that might work.

CR: You have to build a viable product, a working prototype in six hours, or something like that. You don’t want to put all the bells and whistles on. You don’t want to worry about the flame job or anything like that. If it works, it works. If it works, then you’ve got time to dial it in and make it pretty.

You’ve talked a little bit about the importance of the presentation. That’s typically where the design is getting evaluated and there are marks for the presentation itself. You’ve mentioned some things that are good to bring up in the presentation. Are there the other suggestions of things you should cover or ways that you should present things in order to succeed?

MB: Always cover the problem statement. We learned that. Even though it seems kinda obvious because they’re there for the competition. You can skim over it, but…

AS: Have a slide on it for them, when they’re evaluating you, just so they can check off the box that you did hit it.

SL: Definitely the project management stuff, like Aidan mentioned, a Gantt chart and whatnot. One thing that we always try to incorporate into our design is any CAD work we would do. We always try to include a rough model.

CR: Always put a rendering in.

MB: Usually, we design something, build it, and then put together a crude CAD model of what we’ve already built. Which is the opposite of what computer aided design is used for, but you put a rendering in and they’re like, “Oh, wow! They used CAD!”

SL: If you can ever put in equations, some of the proof that you have…

AS: Make it look like it’s not at a full arts and crafts thing. It actually thought-out. You’ve used some of the theories you learned in school.

SL: Engineering concepts.

AS: Even if it’s just as simple as figuring out an elastic’s elastic coefficient or a moment calculation. It’s something that will take you only a couple minutes to do, but will make your design look a lot more thought-out and a lot more intentional.

SL: The biggest thing: Don’t put too much text on the slide. Nobody wants you reading off a slide. You’re there to talk to the judges and sell your design. It’s like a sales pitch.

AS: You don’t have the time to practice your slides as you’re making them since you have to have them made and handed in by the deadline. Your practice time happens after that. So if you keep it fairly vague and make sure you have a slide for all the things you want to hit –just point form– and then work out afterwards what you are actually going to say. It gives you a lot more room or freedom to add or take stuff away. Versus, if you have too much in the slide, and you don’t say anything about it when the slide comes up in the presentation, then it’s gonna look weird. Keep the slides just general points and then use what you’re going to say to actually give the details about it.

MB: After our second competition, we used the exact same slide show for the next ones. You have “Design goals” and then you just change a couple of things. Instead of “wanting to be able to reach this,” now we have “to drive this.” Like Aidan said, if you can keep it really vague then you can add in whatever you want afterwards. It’s kind of like giving yourself extra time to make the presentation, realistically. You make a vague presentation and then you add in the complexities during.

AS: As well, no one really wants to see a presentation where you’re just saying exactly what’s written on the slides. It’s not really entertaining, it’s not as engaging. But if you just have the point form, they jog your memory as you’re doing the presentations, and then you talk about it in a little more detail. It helps you as a presenter and it also keeps it more interesting for your audience.

SL: And I forget who mentioned it, but the biggest thing again is to thank the judges for coming here, for their time. You know they take their weekend off. Just a little thank you puts a little smile on their face. It’s nice.

Last question: Having done this six times, you’ve gotten to go all over Ontario, and almost from one end of the country to the other. Apart from the travel and getting the opportunity to go check out different schools, what do you feel is the most useful thing you’ve gotten out this experience. If you had to sell this to students as to why they should get involved, apart from the fun, what would you tell them?

SL: I think Matt mentioned it, but basically being able to do stuff in a limited amount time. Before you would look at a project like, “That’s going to take me so long.” But if I look at it now, I know if I do this and this, I can get it done in a couple hours. Learning to work under stress and being able to actually do stuff.

MB: One thing that definitely all four us have gained from this the ability to work as a team in tight scenarios. We can spend half of our competition sitting around talking about what we want to do because we put our nose to the grindstone and we work as a team in that short amount of time we have to do stuff.

CR: You learn to trust your team too. If Matt says he’s going to go figure how to codes this thing, you trust that he is gonna go do that because you’ve got another job to do. You have to learn to trust everbody’s skills and that’s probably the hardest thing to do.

MB: Especially when you’re like, “Oh, I could do this,” but you let somebody else do it because you should be doing this part. Usually it’s Colin and I doing a lot of coding. Colin and I would be doing coding and we’re just trusting that Steph and Aidan are getting the mechanical part done.

AS: Because we’ve all agreed on a general design but they’ll trust us that we’ll get it built, that it’ll be fairly reliable, that it’ll work.

MB: Basically what happens is that we’ll have the code done. We’ll have it working on the Arduino, they bring it over and we plug it in, and it just kinda works.

SL: Usually, the second try.

MB: Yeah, the second try.

CR: The first try the wires are backwards.

AS: Going to the competitions too you get to meet a lot of people that actually work in the industry and build relationships with them. Meeting other schools too. There are a couple other schools that we saw at pretty much all the Ontario ones. And you get to the point where you look forward to seeing those guys as well.

MB: You make friends with people that you never would have met before. They’re are like-minded. They like solving problems. They’re smart people. Like Aidan said, not even just networking with people from companies, but getting to meet them makes the company not seem like a big, bad company anymore. You talk to people who work there, “We’re doing this and this.” It actually makes every company a lot more interesting because you realize what you could actually do there.

Is the atmosphere with other design teams pretty encouraging, collegial?

AS: At the end of the build time you get to really see every one else’s ideas. Usually, they have tented-off areas people can’t quite see exactly what you’re doing. And then also everything is so spread out when you’re building that in it’s hard to tell other people’s ideas. But when everything comes out, and you see all these different ideas. “That’s really cool. That’s really neat.” You want to see it do well, but you don’t want it to better than yours. It’s this weird mix of “That’s really cool. I kinda want to see it work, but also I don’t want it to be dominant on the field.”,

SL: At the last competition, RMC’s design was really good but it just ended up getting hung up during the testing. We felt bad for them. They had a good design.

MB: I was almost heartbroken over the fact that their design didn’t work.

SL: There design, I think, was better than ours, to be honest.

MB: But it didn’t perform.

AS: And we probably would have come in third if it did.

MB: So we weren’t upset that they didn’t succeed but, at the same time, we kinda were. If you’re just nice and you enjoy the competition, you want people to succeed as well as you want yourself to succeed.

AS: Keep in mind you’re there to build something cool in a short time frame and see how does. In saying that too, when you go over the rules, if there’s any sort thing that might give one team a huge advantage… Like, say, testing. Sometimes you might have a big advantage by going last because you can see people’s strategies. It’s not necessarily what they’ve built, it’s their strategy and how they go about the task. Something like that you can bring up with the judges. “Is it going to be closed testing, Because whoever goes last has a huge advantage.?” Do look for the little things that might unbalance…

MB: Make it an unfair competition.

AS: Bring it up with the judges earlier on so they can actually do something about it.

Any other last pieces of advice?

AS: “Be comfortable presenting” is that the main thing. It’s such a huge amount of points.

SL: Good luck! Keep the streak up!

No pressure. Although the junior team this year did do really well…

SL: They’re going to keep the torch going, hopefully.

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