Engaging with Young Engineering Talent
When the PneuDrive Challenge was initiated in 2007, no one envisaged that, in less than a decade, it would scale great heights and produce formidable high-end engineers such as Theuns Greyvenstein, the 2009 winner of the Challenge. The Challenge has since established itself as one of the leading competitions for mechatronic students in South Africa. Andrew Rose has been the PneuDrive Challenge Learning Programme Manager since it started. The competition has evolved since then and both winner and programme manager share their perspectives on the Challenge and on the engineering field in general.
Greyvenstein, who has since been employed by SEW-EURODRIVE South Africa as an applications engineer, says that the competition played an important part in his personal and professional growth as an engineer. “In addition to that, my experiences opened my eyes to the realities of constructing
by Andrew Ngozo
CASE IN POINT | SEW-EURODRIVE
technical solutions for industry. The more than 300 hours of work I put in during the Challenge are by far the hardest work I have ever had to do,” he shares. Greyvenstein holds a B.Eng Degree in Mechatronics from Stellenbosch University.
As part of the PneuDrive Challenge, he visited SEW-EURODRIVE’s head offices in Germany, and a whole new world was revealed. “I sincerely believe that we [South Africa] could learn from the Germans. As a developing economy, we need to produce as many engineers as we can, but we are currently producing way below the required numbers.” According to the Department of Labour in 2010, South Africa had only 473 engineers per 1 000 000 people. Rose echoes Greyvenstein’s sentiments, albeit from a different perspective. “Having seen students such as Theuns Greyvenstein progress from an eager and capable student to literally being a systems expert in a few short years is nothing short of phenomenal. Somewhere along the line, the competition has opened doors in his own awareness that he never knew were there. He has the talent and ability to achieve, and the competition was part of the process that helped him to progress more rapidly.”
In explaining how they arrive at the winners of the Challenge, Rose points out that the identification of participants starts when university lecturers decide whether they want to include the design competition as part of their design curriculum. Once lecturers are on board, Rose and his team have the opportunity to introduce students to the potential of the competition. The groundwork commences with road shows during which students are encouraged to stay on the learning path for as long as possible by way of email, social-media interactions and mentoring workshops. “The opportunity to use the very latest industry technologies is one of the spinoffs that is derived from participating in the Challenge,” says Rose. He adds that the Challenge provides a platform for students to experience business and to engage with mentors from industry in a safe and practical environment.
There have been numerous highlights since the introduction of the PneuDrive Challenge. One that Rose mentions in particular is that the Challenge has allowed for the structuring of a learning path that combines multiple sources of content and a range of experiences that many university lecturers have bought into and appreciate. According to Rose, Dr Anton Maneschijn, a Senior Lecturer in Mechanical Engineering Science at the University of Johannesburg, once summed up the PneuDrive Challenge during a road show in early 2014 as follows: “Thank you so much for what you have set up and are organising. There is no way that I can arrange such a full learning experience for my students. It has made what I try to teach them so much easier!” As a result of the Challenge’s benefits, there have been endorsements from industry institutions, such as the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers, the South African Institution of Mechanical Engineering and the South African Fluid Power Association, indicating that “they appreciate the value of the competition and offer support and advice whenever students need it”.
Having been part of the programme since its inception, Rose is best placed to highlight some of the major areas that both industry and academia can emphasise with respect to student engineers and engineers. “Industry needs more practical platforms such as this that allow students to explore in a safe environment. Currently, there are limited opportunities for truly understanding why there needs to be a focus on engineering theory. There must also be access to business mentors in the field, because any economy that has to compete in the modern world must start moving towards a more experiential approach to learning – and quickly.” Emerging from the Challenge, students are confident enough to face the workplace environment and its challenges, indicates Rose. The Challenge allows students to “be part of a learning experience that lets them make mistakes and learn better ways of doing things, thereby generating personal and business confidence”.
Ever since the competition started, evidence from lecturers and students who have bought into, and appreciated the value of, the competition has shown that this experiential platform integrates a range of subjects, and even business experiences, something that students will not have encountered at this stage in their lives, concludes Rose. This is invaluable in preparing them for industry.