As Master of Engineering students, we are accustomed to solving complex problems. Our lecturers give us problems from various applications, and we use our fundamental knowledge to solve them. What we do a lot less of though, is finding the problems that need solving; much less evaluate whether anyone benefits or even cares if we find the answer.
TRAM opened up this revelation to us and taught us a set of skills that allow us to identify problems that really need solving.
I want to share the journey we have undertaken through both the TRAM Track program and our final year Engineering Capstone project. The Capstone project is a year-long project that is the final and often most significant project that engineering students undertake. Small teams select from a range of projects that are set by academics or industry representatives and work on achieving a goal within a well-defined project scope.
Participants can also decide on their own idea for a project and seek out an academic for support. Very few teams choose this option, given how daunting Capstone projects already are, without having to convince others of your own idea. Thanks to some existing experience in our project’s field and the support of both the Melbourne School of Engineering and our academic supervisor Jason Monty, our team chose to follow through with our own idea.
In short, our initial idea was to design a pump powered by broken ocean waves that would be used to generate electricity. For those familiar with the nomenclature, this is a Salt-Water Pumped Hydro Technology. We believed our idea could help solve a variety of problems that occur with existing wave power technologies. Not long after we began working on this project, we also began TRAM Track.
TRAM encouraged us to interview 100 people to gain a better understanding of the problem we were solving before we jumped into trying to solve it, something we hadn’t considered doing. We were given resources that allowed us to ask more effective questions and to better interpret what the answers meant for our project and its translation into a real and feasible product. This was all made easier with the help of our assigned mentor and business coach. We learnt to speak the language of an early stage startup company and before long we were searching for our first ‘early adopter’.
We also discovered that the problem we were solving initially was something that wasn’t feasible at the scale that we wanted. For a group of engineering students this was scary, especially when all of the other Capstone teams had been getting solid results for months and we had now found out that we’d have to change our technology completely. But TRAM guided us through this process, and we pivoted toward a technology that would be feasible and that we thought an early adopter would really want.
By the end of TRAM Track, our project had fundamentally changed. We have been in contact with multiple project supporters and potential investors, none of whom would exist without TRAM Track. Our team also plans to continue this venture under the name Enshore Wave Energy moving into next year.
TRAM Track has taught us something at a more fundamental level, too. As we finish our engineering degrees, we often wonder who will employ us and how our academic skills can be applied to real world problems. Gaining a set of skills in identifying worthwhile problems to be solved and translating research into a project that will have a real impact is the perfect way to end our degrees.
Harry Bradley is a Master of Engineering student and a participant in TRAM Track A 2020 with his team, Enshore Wave Energy.
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