A Canadian university suspended its student racecar-building team after one of the engineers in training had the audacity to pose with it while wearing a bikini. It's an independent study course in sexism, administrative idiocy and misplaced priorities.
The University of Waterloo's Formula SAE team, like dozens of others in the United States and Canada, builds a racecar from scratch as a practical application of their training. Many are crashing to tweak their cars before the competition's biggest events, the Formula SAE contest in Michigan in May. It's an important training ground for the future brains of the auto industry.
Last month, one of Waterloo's Formula SAE engineering student — the leader of the chassis design team — needed modeling photos for an application to a Canadian beauty pageant and breast cancer charity. While the idea had been to pose in front of a borrowed Audi in the school's engineering design center, the student also posed with the SAE car in a two-piece bikini (a requirement of the competition); another female student also posed for a few shots. The photographer, also an engineering student, posted a few of the shots online.
Two weeks later, Waterloo's dean of engineering Adel Sedra announced the school was suspending the entire Formula SAE team through June 1 — blocking them from competing in the Michigan event. The reason? "Misuse of the student design centre space for an unauthorized photo shoot."
The team's faculty advisor Steve Lambert explained the school's reasoning, saying the students "failed to fully appreciate the ease with which these photos could be taken out of context."
The use the Formula car and the SDC (student design center) as a venue were last minute decisions, which gave insufficient consideration to the consequences of using University property and linking this action so closely with the team. The Faculty has spent enormous time and effort over the past few years to create this unique, world-class learning environment. This misuse of the facility was viewed as a violation of trust.
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To which the only reasoned response is: Huh?
First off, nothing in the photos even comes close to scandalous: It's an engineering student posing with a car she helped to build, an image Lambert admits "is a powerful and positive message." Given that engineering is a male-dominated profession, such messages don't come along that often. The shoot wasn't some sneaky undergrad hijinks; they were an attempt by one student to help pay for her education and support a charity in the process.
Punishing the 30 members of the team for a supposed infraction of a few goes too far. And while Dean Sedra did say the Formula SAE students will still get academic credit for their work, they will miss out on not just a competition, but the team building, problem solving and interaction with other future engineers of the Michigan competition. Those skills will be the foundation of their professional careers. Their grades at the University of Waterloo won't matter much beyond graduation.
We contacted the student involved and haven't heard back; the team itself has apologized to the school and vowed to work through the summer on finishing the car:
We are a team of students, and this team is one of the greatest learning experiences of our lives. We all learn what to do from success but we learn far more from our mistakes and the experiences we gain. As a team we have learned and we will emerge from this experience different and stronger.
The only thing this photo exposed was the bad judgment of the University of Waterloo.
H/t to Danny!