It is interesting to look at the WSC performance of teams from institutions in the Times Higher Education “top 100” list for Engineering and Technology:
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology – rank 1
- Stanford Solar Car Project – rank 2 – 4th at WSC 2013
- Cambridge University – rank 6
- University of Michigan – rank 16 – 9th at WSC 2013, 1st at Abu Dhabi
- University of Toronto / Blue Sky – rank 22 – 8th at WSC 2013
- Nuon Solar Team – rank 23 – 1st at WSC 2013
- Punch Powertrain Solar Team – rank 36 – 6th at WSC 2013, 3rd at Abu Dhabi
- University of Minnesota – rank 38 – 4th Cruiser in 2013
- Solar Team Eindhoven – rank 61 – 1st Cruiser in 2013
- University of New South Wales / Sunswift – rank 68 – 3rd Cruiser in 2013
- Solar Team Twente – rank 73 – 3rd at WSC 2013
In the WSC 2013 Challenger class, six of these teams finished in the top ten (a χ-squared test shows this to be statistically significant at p = 0.019). In the WSC 2013 Cruiser class, three of these teams finished in the top four. The “top 100” institutions clearly have an “edge” in solar car racing (although other institutions can also do extremely well). One can speculate on the reasons for this “edge.” I do, however, note that the “top 100” institutions also tend to have a more sophisticated media strategy, with an average of 5.1 social media accounts, rather than 2.8 (statistically significant at p = 0.0000020). This probably reflects media professionalism correlating with other kinds of professionalism. After all, social media is handled just like fund-raising, aerodynamics, or mechanical design – one ensures that the team contains the right people for the job. In the case of Nuon, performance seems to have been associated with a healthy level of team diversity that included engineering, analytical, and media skills.
There is no evidence of any effect of rank on performance within the “top 100,” although the lower end of the “top 100” may use social media slightly more (p = 0.029). On its own, the number of social media profiles correlates with performance in the WSC 2013 Challenger class, albeit weakly (r = 0.51, p = 0.031):
The institutions in the “top 100” do not all take the same approach to building and racing solar cars, and there is an interesting view from across the Atlantic here of TU Delft (Nuon Solar Team). Reading between the lines, while still being student-led, TU Delft seems to run their project less like a classroom exercise and more like an internship. As someone who used to employ interns, I can only cheer. I often pointed out to interns that we did not want them to “learn by failing.” On the contrary, we were paying them to “learn by succeeding.” Avoiding failure by simulating and by asking for advice is part of what makes a great professional engineer. I think that Michigan’s own self-examination is in agreement with that.