I participated last year, but was unsuccessful as the questions were really random and difficult. How can I improve next year? what kind of skills do I need to practise?
Hey! I won the competition in 2016, so I should be qualified to answer
The questions will always be difficult, and will never have an easy answer. They’re designed to be much like actual engineering questions, and no answer is ‘wrong’, but rather will reflect the assumptions you made and the depth to which you investigated. That’s part of the competition, and you shouldn’t be daunted by it - rather, you should (as soon as you get the question) start brainstorming ways you could tackle it.
For example, in 2016 the question was something to the effect of ‘What is the fastest possible time for a person to swim the Olympic 100m freestyle event’. Our team started by breaking the event up into sections. For instance, you have the dive, the period underwater, the period of regular swimming, the tumbleturn, and the period of regular swimming back to the other end. We then tried to model each section.
The dive was modelled with a combination of statistical analysis and kinematic mathematics, the tumbleturn was pure statistics, and the swimming was fluid mechanical analysis based on idealised human anatomy.
I would suggest doing something similar - breaking it up into smaller parts that you need to answer the full question.
Once this planning is done, divide and conquer! You can’t do everything as a group, there just isn’t enough time. We split up individually to research, and then checked each other’s work at the end (mistakes will always be made…).
When we combined our work at the end, we made sure to comb through and look for mistakes again. For instance, I ran through and grammar checked/rewrote people’s work to make it sound coherent, Kevin and Cam math-checked, and James formatted all our images/text etc. When we had our award presentation, then judges commented on how our paper was written more coherently than many of the competitors - and so this was down to carefully running through and checking the consistency of everything - from presentation, to sentence structure, to the number of figures rounded to etc.
We were also meticulous in writing down every assumption we made throughout the process, and made sure to have an agreed upon justification for each one. Justification and careful use of assumptions is imperative to being able to complete the research within the time frame, and present within the 10 page limit.
Also, don’t panic if you can’t come to a conclusion about how to structure the research instantly! It took us nearly 3 hours to actually get going - the first 3 hours were planning and debating what to do.
Basically, you want to think very methodically and analytically, and write as if you were writing for a well educated person with no experience in the subject area.
Hope this helps!!
What Harry has said above is really good advice. The team I was in won the competition back in 2015 and so I might be able to add a couple more things to what Harry has said.
Firstly, these problems are meant to be open-ended and encourage you to think. Try not to limit yourselves and be as creative as you need to be. The first hour or two is best spent brainstorming and coming up with a plan of attack and a structured approach to the question. Don’t stress if you can’t work out everything that you might need to, as Harry has said above, you can make assumptions as long as you clearly state them and the impact of them (and if you have any research to back it up then that’s great too). Also you don’t need one final answer, you can give a range that takes into account conservative assumptions and more aggressive assumptions.
After that, division of labour is key since you are under time pressure. Utilise the strengths of each team member, whether it be writing, maths or research. Another point that I want to stress here is that the overall report should really be written by one person if you can. The data and calculations that you use in the report, as well as the results and research, can be supplied by other members of the team, but by having one person write the overall report you ensure that there is only one voice. It will make your report sound much more coherent than having paragraphs written by different team members.
The last thing that I would stress is that the competition is aimed at secondary school students, so you don’t need to over-complicate things or use ridiculously complicated models. Feel free to do some research and try and find some nice models and mathematics to use, but it doesn’t need to be anything super complicated. The question we had was something like “If an NZ student uploads a video that goes viral, how long will it take for 1% of the world’s population to see it?” We started off really simply by defining the terms like “viral” and modelling the growth of the world’s population from time t=0 so that we could accurately gauge what 1% was. The model we used was a simple exponential growth model that was accurate for the short period of time we were looking at. Then, when it came to modelling the growth of views on a video, we used a variation on the Logistic model of growth (an exponential growth model that also takes a maximum value). The variation allowed for asymmetry which more accurately represented how video views grow. The model, and solving for 1% of the world’s population, was not beyond secondary school mathematics. So the actual maths and modelling doesn’t necessarily have to be super complicated, and in fact if you use simpler models you are more likely to understand them well enough to write clearly about them.
Something to focus on would definitely be understanding mathematics and physics at a secondary school level and doing a bit of research to see how the ideas you have learned about can be extended to model the real world better (eg motion in physics that takes friction or air resistance into account). One last thing that could be worth considering is learning basic programming (particularly in a language like Matlab, or even Python) as it will allow you to run simulations if you so wish.