If I were to write a list of what has changed since the beginning of 2020, I’d probably end up writing a book.

I could retell the whole pandemic: an amazing start to the session, the rapid transition to remote learning after only three weeks of face-to-face teaching, all the first-year students missing out on that intrinsic, Unibar experience. Instead, let me tell you about what hasn’t changed: the resiliency, determination, and passion of our first year engineering students.

I remember my own first few weeks at university. I could probably sum it up as “lecture, lecture, avoid human interaction, lunch, tutorial, labs, avoid human interaction, lecture, avoid human interaction, dorms, sleep” then do it all over again the next day.

You come to learn the hard way that university life is about social experiences, making connections, interacting with people, being in uncomfortable situations, being challenged and building resiliency.

I really can’t imagine what it would be like for someone to come to university for three weeks and then have to go back home to learn remotely. You know what else is beyond my imagination? Missing out on all those social interactions and yet still being able to build such amazing resiliency and passion for your studies.

Where am I heading with all this? Well, it’s the design competition of our first-year common engineering subject “Engineering Design for Sustainability”. This year its theme was diverting waste from landfill through innovative engineering solutions and developing products from waste.

Throughout the 13 weeks of session, teams of 4-5 students learned about the key concepts of engineering and sustainability, and this culminated in a Creative Design Final competition held via zoom on Tuesday, 9 June.

Around 200 participants, judges from industry and guests attended. Ten teams each presented a four-minute pitch of their product (either through awesome video presentations the students had cut together working remotely, or through a series of slides). This was followed by a live four-minute question and answer session with the judging panel, including representatives from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, AusIMM, Bluescope, and the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Award categories included: a community award (sponsored by the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre), most sustainable design, most technical design, most innovative and creative design, most economically viable design (sponsored by AusIMM), people’s choice, and the overall award to the winning team (sponsored by BlueScope).

Team Plastic Picassos won the community award with a product they created called Canvasia, a unique art canvas developed with HDPE waste, primarily bottle caps. The caps are melted down and molded to create a clean, flat surface. The Plastic Picassos believed their work ethic, commitment to twice-weekly meetings and strong communications helped develop and deliver their high-quality product on time. See their video here: https://youtu.be/SaMLobJ3Uzs

Team Plastic Irradiating Initiative won the most sustainable design award where they created a product called Irradiated Plastic Cement Mix. Hard plastic is irradiated then used as an additive to cement mix to increase the strength of concrete. See the link to their video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZUvvjQuOnQA&feature=youtu.be

Team Gherkin Inc. won the most technical design award with a product called The Drain Filtration System. They used rubber from old tyres, PVC, stainless steel and plastic to create their product. See their video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z04eJcaIEhk&feature=youtu.be

The Right Team won both the people’s choice award and the most innovative and creative design award with a product called Aerogel. Here they dissolved denim jeans in a solvent to create a liquid called Aerogel that can be used for thermal insulation. Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEcOjFH6pDc&feature=youtu.be

Team PyroPolymers Inc. won the most economically viable design with a product called EthyPanels. They used plastics to create internal gyprock panels with better strength and durability than existing panels on the market. The key to team PyroPolymers’ success was how they worked together, identifying each team member’s strengths, and allocating tasks to suit their skills, knowledge and interest. See link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEO_NTMUPXo&feature=youtu.be

The Stream Team won the overall award with a product called the Hydrohive that filtrates greywater using three boxes and leads to a 45% reduction in water wastage. Link to video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPEez8cIA3o&feature=youtu.be

As an educator, one of the things I value most in teaching is stimulating students’ curiosity. The design competition was an opportunity for the students to showcase their knowledge and teamwork, and receive expert feedback on how to improve their products.

This is a big first-year subject, and without the concerted support of all the great teaching and professional staff in adjusting to the rapid shift to online learning, it would have been almost impossible for everyone to perform as well as they did. The dedication and care that this team showed for each other and for the students has been exceptional.

Yet, even with all this help, the road to success wasn’t an easy one. Many students struggled to find motivation. Darryl from Plastic Picassos wrote a daily to-do-list to stay on top of things, while Maria from PyroPolymers took it upon herself to help others stay motivated.

One of the amazing qualities that this Faculty is renowned for is its readiness and availability to provide students with continuous feedback. As engineers, we think hard, put a plan together, ask for feedback, start executing it, and ask for more feedback along the way until we come up with something that is valuable. We keep improving. Iteration after iteration, we get to where we want to be.

None of this was individual work. None of the students was able to come up with products on their own, it was all teamwork. And likewise, none of the teaching staff was able to deliver any knowledge individually. This has been the product of an amazing team who worked really hard towards a common goal: creating leaders who can deliver.


Zein Saleh