I was reading the guidelines for a research report for the Siemens competition for high-school science projects. Overall, the guidelines are good, but I have one quibble with their description of the first section:
Introduction: the “why” section (2-3 pages)
- Start with a broad picture of the problem you have chosen to study and why it is interesting. Provide a brief review of pertinent scientific literature, describe what information is missing and how your work addresses this gap in the literature. Previous relevant publications and patents must be properly cited in the text of the Research Report and included in the Reference section of your report.
- Describe the specific problem to be solved, the research question to be answered, the hypothesis(es) to be tested, or the product to be developed (if any). Provide a brief rationale for the research and why the work is important.
I believe that they are encouraging a common mistake: burying the lede. Theses, grant proposals, student projects, and papers should start with a direct statement of the research question or design goal of the project, then provide the “broad picture” and “why it is interesting”. I’m very tired of wading through a page or more of mush trying to find out what a student project (or published research paper) is.
Swapping the two points that they put in the first section would improve the quality immensely.
It looks like I won’t be playing with the bridge-design contest software this year. I downloaded the software from https://bridgecontest.org/resources/download/, but was unable to run it. They’ve made their software so that it only runs on Mac OS 10.7.3 or newer, but my MacBook Pro is running OS 10.6.8. I suspect that there are a lot of schools out there running old Mac software also, so making the software run only on the new Macs is cutting out a lot of users (particularly in the less-wealthy school districts). This is a common problem with software developers—because they invest in the latest hardware and software, they assume that everyone else is able and willing to do so. More likely, they don’t even think about the number of people they cut out by writing programs that only run on recent computers, nor who those people are.
Note: there is a newer iMac in the household, and now that my son is in college I can get time on it, so I might install the bridge-design software there.
I know that I could also upgrade my 10.6.8 Mac (possibly even for free still), but I’ve heard from a number of students who did the upgrade last year or the year before, that the resulting laptop was far less reliable and much of their older software was broken by the “upgrade”. I’m not willing to have to replace large swaths of my functioning software just to play one game. I’ll put up with the pain of major changes to the operating system the next time I replace the hardware.
Last year’s bridge design did not work well for the 2014 Engineering Encounters Bridge Design Contest (formerly the West Point Bridge Design Contest):
Bridge design costing about $169.9k in the 2013 contest.
When I tried a similar design in the West Point Bridge Designer 2014, I couldn’t get the cost below about $172k, but a simpler design was cheaper:
$167.3k bridge design for West Point Bridge Designer 2014.
This design is currently 12 of 41 in the open contest, so clearly one can do better. I don’t expect it to stay high on the leaderboard for long. It would already be much worse than that on the consolidated board, since the top 10 on the open board only fall in the top 50 on the consolidated one.
I think that the contest would be more interesting to me if they had provided an API for testing bridges. Then the challenge would be to write bridge optimization software that explored the design space much more thoroughly and tweaked the designs. It might be possible to do that this year, as the source code is available from sourceforge. I’m not interested enough in the optimization problem to try to interface to their Java code, but it might be a good way to make a college-level version of the Bridge Designer Contest.
I modified last year’s bridge to meet the constraints of this year’s West Point Bridge Design Challenge:
Bridge design costing about $169.9k in the 2013 contest. Note: I’ve deliberately distorted the picture to make it difficult to blindly copy the design, as I had problems with middle-school students using my published designs to cheat on their homework. The truss design I have here can be used as inspiration, but not copied directly.
As of 2013 Jan 16, this design is number 3 in the “open competition”, but I’m sure it will slip a long way, as I don’t plan to do much (if any) tweaking.
I found it interesting that from this year’s version of the code they removed the options to change the viewpoint from which the bridge was viewed, though the included help system still describes the now-missing controls.
- West Point Bridge Designer 2011 (gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com)
- West Point Bridge Design Contest 2012 (gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com)
- West Point Bridge Design Contest 2012, again (gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com)
designcontest.com is taking advantage of the University of California logo fiasco to advertise their low-cost design site. They’ve started a design contest for a new UC logo, with a tiny $249 prize. This costs them very little, but gets them a lot of free publicity (like this blog post or this article in the Houston Chronicle) worth far more than the prize costs.
Of course, since they did not make it clear that the real goal was a favicon (one of the tiny icons that appear in a browser bar), most of the designs being submitted are far too fussy. None of them are going to be picked up by UC anyway—this is purely a vanity contest.
But the idea of a design contest, with clearly expressed goals, is a good one. I hope that the UCOP is not so stuck in their not-invented-here mode that they refuse to see the value of an open design competition—one with a big enough prize to get some professionals interested, but not so large that it is a ridiculous amount to spend (i.e., not like the money they waste on business consultants to justify hiring new executives). Some good designers will be tempted to enter the competition because of the enormous advertising value of winning it.
If UC promised to create a public web site requesting comments on the top 10 designs, there would be even more interest by designers—it is a lot more likely that a good designer would make the top 10 than be selected as number 1 by the arbitrary and unknown tastes of the people at UCOP (especially since they picked such a loser the first time).
Involving faculty, students, and the general public in the decision-making at UC must be scary to the executives (since they go to great expense to avoid it), but it is necessary to rebuild a public constituency for the University, and contests like this one are a low-cost way to start that. It seems like designcontest.com knows how to go about getting positive publicity, while UCOP is only good at making stupid PR blunders (like the UC logo and raises for executives while laying off lecturers). Maybe we should replace UCOP executives with the people who run designcontest.com—it’s bound to be cheaper, and they can’t do that much worse a job.