Engineering conference allows students to explore new software, apply it to minidrones

Hawa Ibrahim, 21, a second-year information knowledge systems student from the University of Pretoria Photo: Robin-Lee Francke/IOL

Hawa Ibrahim, 21, a second-year information knowledge systems student from the University of Pretoria Photo: Robin-Lee Francke/IOL

Published Dec 1, 2022


Cape Town - Students from various universities across South Africa attending the 2022 World Engineering Education Forum (WEEF) and the Global Engineering Deans’ Council (GEDC) Conference in Cape Town were privileged to spend some time developing new coding skills and using the latest technology minidrones.

The minidrones were on exhibition at the conference being held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre this week.

The International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES), based in Washington DC, hosts the conference in different locations each year - and Cape Town is the first-ever African host.

The South African Society for Engineering Education (SASEE), as a member of IFEES, is co-hosting this event with the University of Pretoria and Central University of Technology, in conjunction with the South African Engineering Deans’ Forum.

Students attending the conference were exposed to world-leading software and got to apply it to the minidrones on exhibition. Photo: Robin-Lee Francke/IOL

Professor Sunil Maharaj from the University of Pretoria is the general conference chair.

The conference was not just hosted for industry experts, but included students as well.

The students attending also had the opportunity to be exposed to the developers of world-leading mathematical computing software for engineers and scientists - MathWorks.

MathWorks produces mathematical computing software for engineers, scientists, mathematicians and researchers, and has more than 5 000 employees across the world.

MathWorks’ MATLAB is a programming platform (and a matrix-based language of technical computing), designed specifically for algorithm development, data analysis, visualisation, and numeric computation.

The conference was not just hosted for industry experts, but included students as well. Photo: Robin-Lee Francke/IOL

PJ Boardman from MathWorks, US, said that it was their aim with this conference to expand its reach and open access to students across the world to apply computational thinking and model-based design to their work and into their studies.

“We have a three-day workshop where students don’t need to know our software, which is MATLAB and Simulink, before they begin to learn more about the software and are able to apply it to a minidrone.

“In the final day, students will be able to run the drone in the cage and see their work come to fruition with an actual piece of hardware.

“The exciting thing is you can go from perhaps never having coded (before) to being able to see it in action with a drone.

“We are creating a diverse workforce of tomorrow - and opening access here is very important for us,” Boardman said.

Opti-Num Solutions is the authorised reseller of MATLAB and Simulink in the southern African region.

“We leant very quickly how to work with southern African clients on how to integrate MATLAB into their work or projects - whether it was by training people to build skills or filling in a gap where they didn’t have the skills yet,” said Adri van Nieuwkerk, business development consultant for Opti-Num Solutions.

“The work ethic of the students is astounding.

“The reason for this workshop is it’s practical. We have the actual device, which is the minidrone - and it’s low-cost hardware,” she said.

Additionally, the software is easy to understand. Van Nieuwkerk said this became evident when she noticed a first-year student from Stellenbosch University seated alongside second, third and fourth-year students and coding at their level - because he was able to “jump into the software”.

A minidrone competition was also hosted at the workshop.

“MathWorks have been running this in a couple of countries with thousands of students.

“We could see that it could scale, with the right sponsors. When we were speaking to Professor Maharaj, we said we needed something to help include students - and that was actually his primary focus.

“He wanted students to be a part of this conference so that students and lecturers were talking to one another. That is so vital, because sometimes we get stuck in our echo chambers of thoughts - either as a lecturer or as an industry partner,” van Nieuwkerk said.

She said the competition allows for everyone to be pulled in as equals.

Maitreyee Mordekar, 31, from India, who is a technical evangelist for student programmes for MathWorks, created and delivered the workshop at the conference.

This is the first time the workshop has been brought to Africa, and Mordekar said the reaction from those participating had been wonderful.

“The students were engrossed. They are now learning what they want to do in the industry when they step out. They are getting trained to be better professionals when they step out into the work world.

“Simulation is an extremely important part of building engineering products, so it’s definitely something nice when students are so engrossed in real engineering - project based learning is the most important part of it.

“The concepts they learn in class can be applied here - and moral base design is what they are learning .

“Look how quickly you can create visual simulation and hardware,” Mordekar said.

She said that although the conference is the pilot project for this particular workshop, MathWorks has hosted minidrone competitions all over the world since 2018.

Countries such as Mexico, Columbia, India and Australia have all hosted the competition before.

“Until Sunday, they [students] probably didn’t know the concepts at all, but now they can see themselves flying this.

“It is exciting to see how the tools are helping them achieve this. The hope is that after this workshop they are a little more prepared for the real world and how simulations play an extremely important part in the industry,” Mordekar explained.

Hawa Ibrahim, 21, a second-year information knowledge systems student at the University of Pretoria, said she initially felt intimidated by the technology.

“This has been a really amazing experience. I am not familiar with MathWorks or Simulink.

“Initially, I was intimidated because I did not know much of this technology, but I really loved how everyone was speaking and the way the teaching was.

“The explanations were easy to understand,” she told IOL.

Ibrahim said her biggest takeaway from attending this workshop was teamwork.

“I learnt that there is no way to go around going solo. We were working as teams and even though it was a competition, everyone openly communicated and shared ideas,” she added.

Van Nieuwkerk said Opti-Num Solutions wanted to run the competition again, this time for South African students.

“We want to do this again and in a way that will be accessible to as many students in South Africa as possible.

“We are trying to engage with the right universities,” she added.

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