Five Years and Counting

Lessons learned coaching Science Olympiad.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mike Kwan

CREDIT St. Mary's“Hey, Dad. I joined the Science Olympiad team at St. Mary’s. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun!” That’s how it all started for me five years ago. My daughter, Cami, was starting her sophomore year at St. Mary’s Academy, an all-women’s college prep high school in Portland, Oregon, and was adding yet another activity to her plate. But I knew this one would be different when she followed it up with, “We have parents who volunteer as coaches. I think you should be a volunteer coach.” This wasn’t going to be just another Cami activity to plan around; it was a chance for me to spend time with her while helping her fellow students.

I did some research and learned that Science Olympiad is a national non-profit organization with a mission of increasing an interest in science, creating a technologically-literate workforce and providing recognition for outstanding achievement by both students and teachers.  The organization helps participants achieve these goals through competitions, at a regional and national level, where teams of 15 students compete in 23 different events, ranging from biology-focused tasks to astronomy, physics and technology. The St. Mary’s team had won the Oregon State tournament and gone to the Science Olympiad National Tournament two years running, and the pressure was on to continue that success.

As a career engineer currently working at Autodesk, I gravitated to coaching the tournament’s building events where students are asked to design, develop and build structures that can withstand certain pressures.  When I began working with the students, I found that they were pursuing ideas and designs that they had seen at previous tournaments, on YouTube or that they had brainstormed with their teammates and mentors.  Their energy and creativity was strong, but their solutions seemed undirected—and the clock was ticking quickly toward the tournament.

Ever so gently and gradually, I moved the building event students toward a more disciplined and engineering-focused approach that included, in order: understanding the rules, fostering ideas and creativity, designing, building, testing, analyzing the results and refining the process (repeating the design, build, test and analysis phases).

The new process, along with giving the students room to grow and explore, made a big difference in helping them understand what we were doing and why. But I could also tell that our design-build-test cycles were too taking too long due to the ambiguousness of hand sketching designs and the time it took to build and test prototypes.

Enter Autodesk and its 3D design software. Autodesk’s education program introduces students (and educators) at all levels to the power of design technology by providing access to its personal and professional-grade software and applications free of cost. By giving my daughter and her engineer-in-training friends access to these tools, specifically Autodesk Inventor, 3D design technology for manufacturers and designers, they were able to design and document Elastic Launch Gliders, a plane launched by an elastic band and key parts of the Boomilevers, a wooden structure designed to hold as much weight as possible before breaking. They also experimented with Autodesk Force Effect to model the core Boomilever designs, which allowed the students to quickly zero in on basic geometry decisions and key design components. The technology helped the students design, analyze and test their models far faster and more effectively than in years past.  For example, the students now were building and testing Boomilevers on a two-week cycle while I expected six-week cycles based on our traditional processes.

I was amazed at how quickly, and easily, the students adapted to the digital design environment. As sophomores and juniors in high school, they were being exposed to processes and programs that could ultimately drive their educational and, possibly, professional careers. And, for me, it drove home why it is so critical that we put these resources in the hands of young, eager students.  My hope is that this experience will inspire these St. Mary’s girls to pursue a path in the field of design and engineering and help solve some of our world’s most crucial design challenges.

As I reflect on the competition season, I’m proud of the work our team accomplished but have also established a new appreciation for my company’s commitment to advancing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, digital arts and science) education. Autodesk’s company-wide mission to develop and encourage the next generation of STEAM professionals is making a difference – I saw it firsthand. These tools enabled my team to think more creatively and be innovative and limitless with their design work.

Next year, the St. Mary’s team will begin to use more design and analysis tools from Autodesk. In fact, I hope to expose them to the latest tools on the market.  This includes Autodesk’s recently announced Fusion 360, technology that combines industrial and mechanical design with collaboration, and Sim 360, which provides cloud-based simulation capabilities. This software will make it easy for our team to start creating more advanced models and running more complex simulations.  What’s even more appealing – especially to high school students – is that many of these tools include collaboration features that closely align with the social networking sites that the students are already using in other parts of their lives. It’s a comfortable, intuitive environment for the students to work within.

After this year’s win at the state tournament, the St. Mary’s Science Olympiad winning streak is now up to seven consecutive years and, with hard work, great software and some good fortune; next year, it will become eight!

Mike Kwan is a program manager at Autodesk, Inc. and has been St. Mary’s Science Olympiad Coach from September 2008 to the present.

  • Marc Palmer


    Hello Sir,

    I have some experience with inventor. I can get it to do everything I need in terms of 3D model, but I wouldn’t say my approach is always the most efficient. How do you recommend modeling a boomilver in inventor. I was thinking of using separate stick.ipt assembled as an .iam

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