SAE Baja: The project team experience
Illinois has a lot of opportunities for students to find their niche. For us, Veronica and Stef, it was the Off-road Illini, the university’s Baja SAE team. Baja SAE hosts collegiate off-road racing competitions internationally, and this year the Off-road Illini had plans to travel to Arizona, Kentucky, and Illinois to compete with around 100 other teams at each competition. Our team designs, builds, and tests a new car every year at the Engineering Student Project Laboratory (ESPL) to compete in these events. Each competition spans multiple days and includes various events to test our team and our new car – such as design and sales presentations, dynamic events, and a four-hour endurance race to finish off the competition.
The team consists of over 80 students from a variety of both technical and non-technical backgrounds, and it only continues to grow, but even so we all have our own takeaways from the team, so we wanted to share ours with you.
I was on the Baja team for four years; I joined just a couple weeks into my freshman year. I gained so much experience applying the concepts I learned in class, and I’m a better engineer for it.
I was in multiple leadership roles on the team, such as safety officer, sub-team co-lead, and my most recent role, frame designer. In this role, I designed the roll-cage and coordinated component integration with the other subsystems of the car, and I earned credit for the required Senior Capstone Design while doing it. I had numerous design projects on the team, and through these projects I learned a lot about topics typically not covered in-depth in core ME classes, such as Finite Element Analysis (FEA).
I was also the lead welder, welding many parts for the team from manufacturing jigs to the entire frame. I learned how to weld through training that the team offers for its members. This experience allowed me to see exactly how design choices affect the manufacturability of the parts and apply concepts from classes like ME 270 and ME 330.
The experience I gained on the team also really helped my professional development. I acquired a lot of soft skills – such as how to efficiently work in a team, how to give good presentations, and how to be an effective leader. My time on the Baja team definitely contributed to the reason I landed multiple internships, as a lot of recruiters look for the type of project team experience that are gained on teams like Baja. It also helped me create a large professional network, as I met a lot of engineering students and professionals in various industries through the Baja competitions and through the team’s alumni.
During my senior year, I was one of the co-captains for the Baja team and over the years I completed various design projects for the team and held different leadership positions. In terms of technical projects, I had the chance to do welding projects, design manufacturing jigs, study the failures in the car, experiment with composite integration, and more. All of my projects on the team built upon things I learned in my courses and have increased my understanding of and intuition for those concepts. That element of being on the team was extremely valuable, but for me there is another component that was a little more significant.
In high school, I ran cross country; I loved running, but more than that I loved the team and the community it provided. In college, being on Baja did the same for me. We put a huge amount of work and heart into building our cars and the connections that builds between us as students, engineers, and friends was incredibly fulfilling. Every part I helped design, every project I worked on is about more than just me; it’s about contributing to the team and people I care about. Illinois is a really big school, but with Baja I was able to find my place and I think that’s really special.
Holding leadership positions on the team was also a really amazing experience. Not only is it awesome to be able to help lead something you are extremely passionate about, but it’s also good for learning to make big decisions within the scope of a long-term project.
Apart from our time in Baja, any of the project teams can provide extremely valuable experiences for college. Design opportunities are all around the MechSE department through a variety of competition teams, professional organizations, and other RSOs. These groups help with technical and professional development by simulating real-world engineering experiences where project management and technical knowledge are paramount. Being involved on these teams is also extremely helpful for having experiences to talk about at career fairs and during interviews – the teams offer opportunities to learn about things that aren’t usually within the breadth of coursework in MechSE, which is extremely marketable.
Being on a design team can be extremely fulfilling and it provides a lot of opportunities for growth as an engineer. We love Baja and it was the best part of our college experience – if you have the chance, get involved on a design team. You won’t regret it!
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