Game-based engineering contest challenges students to solve real-world problems

2017 Engineering Academic Challenge is open for registration

EAC developers Jay Bhatt (left) and Daniel Christe (far right) pose with a top scorer during a "marathon" event of last year’s Engineering Academic Challenge, sporting slick bottle opener sunglasses. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Christe)

A global online contest uses game-based learning strategies to challenge engineering students while familiarizing them with Elsevier’s Knovel and Engineering Village databases. These tools enable engineers to do “deep searching” — going beyond a simple Google search to find context and related research, much of which is not freely available on the web. And they help them avoid spending hours sifting through technical data by giving them actionable information directly applicable to their projects.

The Engineering Academic Challenge (EAC) introduces students to these tools, which they are likely to encounter in the professional world, while testing their engineering savvy and developing problem-solving skills.

Jian YiIt’s gaining momentum at engineering institutions across North America, South America, Europe and Asia, with thousands expected to sign up in coming weeks. A survey following the 2016 inaugural challenge found that 96 percent of respondents were interested in playing again, and 93 percent of those who registered but did not play indicated interest in playing in the future.

“What I enjoyed most was that the problems weren’t surface level; they were real-world problems that we had to apply equations to solve,” said Jian Yi, an undergraduate engineering student at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, in an interview. “This let me appreciate the functional knowledge required by an engineer in the industry.”

David Tan Chiang WeeDavid Tan Chiang Wee, the engineering librarian who helped organize the event at Nanyang, said that because the 2016 questions were more demanding than previously, students were “enticed” to participate and delve into the databases.

Sumita SinghSumita Singh, Elsevier’s Chief Marketing Officer for R&D Solutions, said the event’s success last year prompted her team to run the challenge again in the spring rather than waiting for fall. “We’re encouraged by the increasing involvement, energy and enthusiasm of the participating institutions and the use of Knovel and Engineering Village by the participants,” she said.

“Using these tools helps them get more value from our engineering solutions portfolio.” (See Sample Questions below.)

“The challenge has become more than just a way to acquaint users with our databases,” she added. “It’s fostering Elsevier’s mission to support collaboration among some of the world’s leading engineering schools.”

The value of active learning

The EAC is an immersive problem-solving competition based on principles of active learning. Registered participants access selected parts of the Knovel and the Engineering Village database Compendex to answer five real-world questions every week for five weeks. Players receive points based on accuracy and the time it takes them to find the correct answers. High-scoring players win weekly prizes, and the two top participants overall receive a grand prize.

Jay BhattDaniel ChristeQuestions were developed by a small team of engineering students supported by engineering faculty at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Daniel Christe, Innovation Advisor to Elsevier’s Academic Engineering Solutions Library Advisory Board, heads up the development team with guidance from Liaison Librarian for Engineering Jay Bhatt.

Christe and Bhatt, long-time advocates of active learning, are among the coauthors of Elsevier’s white paper “A Game-Based Learning Approach to Information Literacy.” The approach — as well as the challenge — is also supported by Dr. Antonios Kontsos, Director of Drexel’s Theoretical and Applied Mechanics Group. As Dr. Kontsos noted in an interview for the Engineering Village blog:

The traditional model of teaching, where we require students to sit in a chair for two or three hours at a time, bears no resemblance to what students do in daily life. … Gaming adds an element of interactive and personalized exploration of the material, compared to a generic lecture by someone who may be much older and not really in tune with modern technology.

Authors of a recent meta-analysis in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concur, noting that “calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.” The researchers found that average examination scores improved by about 6 percent in active learning sessions, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 55 percent more likely to fail than were those in classes with active learning.

For the 2017 challenge, the Drexel team is raising the bar on interactivity by adding more videos to the questions to provide “high-level context,” Christe said. For example, a question in 2016 about reducing fuel consumption in a commercial airliner links to a 2-minute video explaining why the issue is important — specifically, aviation’s impact on climate change.

Players can expect more like this going forward, added Bhatt, “because it’s where we need our students to be. To become innovation leaders, they need to be contextually aware of the world they operate in.”

Encouraging interdisciplinary problem solving

Elsevier supports the interdisciplinary nature of the challenge, which focuses on topics in mechanical, civil, environmental and biomedical engineering. “For future challenges, we will look for ways to expand the subject matter, both to engage students and faculty in other areas and to expose all participants to disciplines they may be less familiar with,” Singh said.

When exploring the databases for input into questions, Christe was “thrilled” to discover that many of the relevant journals were chemistry, physics and biology — not engineering. “That was an amazing finding, and it reinforces why we need transdisciplinary expertise, both to develop the challenge and to play to win.”

Ensuring that members of the development team come from different disciplines also encourages collaboration during the question-creation process. “When one person comes up with a question in a specific discipline, others are inspired to do the same in their areas of expertise, and then team members need to discuss all the input to make final decisions,” Bhatt explained. “It also encourages peer mentoring — teaching each other about different disciplines, and also about the features of the Knovel and Engineering Village platforms needed for the responses.”

Nanyang Technological University’s Chiang Wee noted that the interdisciplinary nature of the challenge is in keeping with the university’s current focus. “Previously, our six engineering schools each worked separately. Now we have an Interdisciplinary Graduate School (IGS) where students, faculty and engineering research fellows can all work together. The challenge will help by pushing students into areas they may not have encountered before.”

Jian Yi agreed. A mechanical engineering and aerospace major, he was moved out of his comfort zone by a question in the 2016 challenge on the future of medicine. That was a good thing, Chiang Wee said, because researchers at the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering School recently reconstructed an artificial heart valve to replace a mechanical heart valve, which is something traditional mechanical engineers did not specialize in years ago. “We are seeing the overlap in the real world, and the interdisciplinary aspect of the challenge fits right in.”

To further this approach, Singh noted that plans are underway to run Elsevier’s ChemSearch Challenge in tandem with upcoming EAC. This is a similar event but with five weekly chemistry-related challenges. (See ChemSearch Challenge below)

Boosting career skills

A main goal of the challenge is to show players the value of “deep searching” — that is, going beyond a simple Internet search to find information on an assignment or research project. Becoming familiar with subscription databases does more than open the door to new sources of knowledge; it’s also a potential advantage when looking for a job since many companies require that project team members have such skills, Bhatt said.

Some participants have asked Elsevier to create a certificate stating their ranking in the challenge to show potential employers. At press time, Elsevier was considering awarding such certificates to the top 10 or 20 players.

Coming together on campus

Promoting EAC participation “required a lot of energy, activity, collaboration and being available on campus to bring students into the library,” Christe said. “Participants can play from anywhere, but we created a marathon-type environment in the library, where people could come together with food and music, and with the leaderboard up on a big screen. Playing the challenge together in one place, whether people are participating as individuals or on a team, offers a much richer social experience.”

“It’s a connective learning experience where everyone gets to know each other in the process,” Bhatt said. “We’ve noticed that after the challenge is over, students who became friends continued to connect and work on projects together.

“The challenge also raised awareness about the databases we subscribe to but students didn’t know about,” Bhatt added. A post-challenge survey of Drexel players showed that about 60 percent had never used the databases before the challenge, and 90 percent said they would use them again.

Elsevier worked with Christe prior to the challenge to come up with a librarian toolkit to help institutions promote the event. After reading about Drexel’s “marathon nights” in the toolkit, universities around the world held similar events, and some translated the handouts into their own languages, Christe said. “I set up a Google alert so I could see what was happening elsewhere. It was amazing to see our suggestions in action.”

ChemSearch Challenge launches April 2

Similar to the EAC, the ChemSearch Challenge enables students to join in an 8-week competition to see who can come up with accurate answers fastest. Individuals and teams at subscribing institutions will use Reaxys, the Elsevier database that facilitates rapid retrieval of relevant chemistry literature, patent information, compound properties and experimental procedures. Participants can register to play the game or watch the ChemSearch webinar.

If your organization is new to Reaxys and would like to trial the database to participate in the challenge, please contact us at

Register for the Engineering Academic Challenge

The Spring 2017 Engineering Academic Challenge is structured around five broad transdisciplinary themes inspired, as previously, by the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges. The themes are:

  1. Energy for a Sustainable Future
  2. Human Intelligence Meets the Artificial (e.g., deep learning, autonomous cars, generative design)
  3. Engineering the Biological World (e.g., CRISPR, gene drive, synthetic bio)
  4. Securing Cyberspace (e.g., Internet of Things security, Distributed Denial of Service attacks, etc.)
  5. Exploring Space 

The EAC is open to students in institutions that subscribe to Engineering Village and/or Knovel. If your institution subscribes only to one of the databases, your Engineering Academic Challenge Credentials will give you access to both databases for the duration of the challenge. Register here

Sample questions for Engineering Academic Challenge

The following questions were developed for the 2016 challenge. The first required players to search the Knovel database and the second, Engineering Village.

At rest, humans produce approximately 100 W of body heat, which may increase to 2000 W during exercise. Clothing reduces the speed at which we lose body heat, or in extremely warm environments slows the rate at which we gain body heat. The challenge of designing performance sportswear is to maintain an optimum balance between these two functions.

Question (Knovel): As an R&D engineer designing new high performance uniforms for Olympic athletes, you look to nature for inspiration. You find it in penguins that must withstand extreme cold without food for three months at a time, while being able to dive into freezing waters to feed. While dry, their coat functions as a barrier to heat loss through convection. In wet conditions, their coat switches to a smooth, waterproof surface free of trapped air.

The critical factor in achieving this adaptive system is:

  1. Pack barbs close together in a high volume fraction
  2. The ability to uniformly divide air space each time the coat switches from dry to wet
  3. The average diameter of the feathers
  4. The thickness of the feather coat

Hint: Search “Textiles for Sportswear”.

Solution: You need to synthesize understanding of a biological function into guidance on the design of a performance textile.

Source: Shishoo, Roshan. (2015). "Textiles for Sportswear - 4. Biomimetic Approach to the Design of Textiles for Sportswear Applications," Elsevier.

You have just landed the dream job of your life, working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL)! You have been assigned to a crack team planning the first Mars sample return mission. Complexity reduction is paramount where possible to reduce costs.

Question (Engineering Village): You are evaluating the use of emerging commercial space capabilities (e.g., SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle). You come across a recent study by your colleagues at NASA Ames on the Red Dragon MSR architecture. The projected entry mass using only thrusters on the final approach is ___________, giving a useful payload of ________.

  1. 10-13 mt, 2 mt
  2. 7-10 mt, 2 mt
  3. 9-12 mt, 3 mt
  4. 8-11 mt, 3 mt

Hint: Search Engineering Village for “Mars Sample Return”

Solution: Find the article below and read the section entitled “Entry, Descent, and Landing.”

Source: Gonzales, AA. and CR. Stoker (2016). "An efficient approach for Mars Sample Return using emerging commercial capabilities." Acta Astronautica 123: 16-25.


Written by

Marilynn Larkin

Written by

Marilynn Larkin

Marilynn Larkin is an award-winning science writer and editor who develops content for medical, scientific and consumer audiences. She was a contributing editor to The Lancet and its affiliated medical journals for more than 10 years and a regular contributor to the New York Academy of Sciences' publications and Reuters Health's professional newsfeed. She also launched and served as editor of Caring for the Ages, an official publication of the American Medical Directors Association. Larkin's articles also have appeared in Consumer ReportsVogue, Woman's Day and many other consumer publications, and she is the author of five consumer health books.

As a consultant on postural awareness and confidence building, Larkin has presented to corporations and nonprofits and at regional and national meetings of, among others, the American Society on Aging and National Council on Aging, the American College of Sports Medicine, and New Jersey Dietetic Association.


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