For Xiaopeng Bi, teaching is both a passion and a privilege.

As one of two founding faculty members of WSU North Puget Sound at Everett’s mechanical engineering program, and the winner of the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award, Bi is well-known for bringing real-world projects into his classrooms.

We recently caught up with professor Bi and asked him about his experience with the University Rover Challenge, his thoughts on teaching, and his advice for students.

What classes do you teach?

Xiaopeng Bi and students pose by a sign that reads Conference Center.
WSU Everett students and Dr. Xiaopeng Bi (left) attending a multi-university UAV design collaboration meeting in Utah.

I’ve taught 25 different engineering courses, ranging from freshmen to graduate levels, including engineering analysis, system dynamics, manufacturing processes, mechatronics, engineering design, machine design, and mechanical system design.

What do you like most about teaching/advising?

Teaching and advising at WSU has been a rewarding career. I feel accomplished when I see students’ proud and confident smiles whenever they work hard to overcome difficulties. I really like to see my students applying the engineering fundamentals they learned in classes into various real-world and hands-on projects.

How did you become part of the WSU North Puget Sound at Everett Engineering Club and the University Rover Challenge?

As a teacher, providing a stimulating learning environment to bring the best out of young minds is the most rewarding for me.

I was the founding advisor for the WSU Everett Engineering Club and the Mars Rover team in 2014. While introducing the rover project to the club, I also extended elements of the Mars rover project into the mechatronics class I was setting up at that time.

It was a challenging but fun journey to dissect the project into smaller portions, sometimes into small course projects, and to provide the team the needed technical and emotional support throughout.

People inspecting components at a workbench.
Dr. Bi and students working on the Mars rover chassis suspension system.

Tell us about the University Rover Challenge.

Held annually in the desert of southern Utah, the competition challenges student teams to design and build the next generation of rovers that will one day work alongside astronauts exploring the planet Mars.

The University Rover Challenge (URC) was a seemingly impossible mission when I first introduced it to the club. Being challenging made it beautiful in the same time. I enjoyed the process of overcoming obstacles with students.

Being a new program, we had to start from scratch. I was very glad seeing the wonderful teamwork and problem-solving skills demonstrated by the students during the design, building, and testing processes.

As a brand new team, we were greeted with a lot of unexpected surprises. But my students overcame them creatively and beautifully; for example, they used cell phone signals for the rover’s GPS location, modified sample bins to hold tools, and wove a net to hold the gas tank.

Two people pose with a chisel hammer.
Dr. Xiaopeng Bi (left) presents Phil Engel (right) with the URC 2016 John Barainca Award.

Our students proved themselves as a group of confident and competent engineers. Despite being a small program, we were able to bring home two awards (2nd place overall and the only individual science prize) out of the total four awards handed out.

Phil Engel, a mechanical engineering student, was the only student in the competition to earn an individual science award. It is quite an honor for Phil and the team. Phil was recognized for his outstanding performance being the Science sub-team lead for WSU. He stood out from all competitors at the University Rover Challenge based on the presentation and Q&A on implementation of soil sample scientific analyses.

I am really proud of the students’ achievements.

How does being part of a club help students academically and professionally?

By applying the engineering fundamentals to the real hands-on system, students develop strong problem-solving skills. The innovation, leadership, teamwork, project and budget management experiences gained as part of a project of this scale are highly desired by many potential employers.

What’s next for the Mars Rover Team?

Students are making improvements and hope to compete again next year. Some of our students are also working on unmanned aerial vehicle and rocket design, and hope to attend competitions in those fields as well.

What advice would you give to students to excel in college?

The biggest obstacles aren’t exams or at competitions, but rather the ones in your own mind.