Listening to a professor explain a formula doesn’t always work for students. For some, hands-on experience is the best way to learn as well as peak their interest in their intended course of study.
That is the aim of a pair of engineering classes — Engineering 111 and 112 — offered by the Dwight Look College of Engineering. In these classes, students are shown practical uses for the formulas they are learning, which the engineering staff hopes gets them “revved up” about the field of engineering.
“The goal of this course is to introduce students to engineering,” said Dr. Natela Ostrovskaya, a nuclear engineering professor who is teaching the 111 course in the fall.
The students in Ostrovskaya’s class recently completed a project that aimed to familiarize them with the basics of the physics and mathematics involved in the field of vehicle dynamics. This came on the heels of a project in which the students worked on building a truss bridge.
“Students are grouped in teams of three or four for the projects,” Ostrovkaya said. “While working on the projects the students have to go through all the steps of the engineering design process: conduct background research, come up with new ideas, suggest different design solutions, apply various analysis techniques to select the best design, and build and test the prototype.
“In addition, we emphasize the importance of proper communication with clients. For each task, the teams have to present their progress in brief technical reports. For the truss bridge project, we also helped students brush up on their trigonometry skills. Those skills are important throughout engineering.”
During the project that dealt with vehicle dynamics, each team was required to design and test a stunt vehicle. The stunt vehicles, which came in many different shapes and sizes, were made out of Legos and were sent down a bright orange plastic “Hot Wheels” racetrack.
At the end of the tracks were billboard frames [horizontal sticks spaced at various intervals] that the cars were required to travel through. Additionally, the cars had to survive the impact with the ground once they traveled through the billboards.
“For this project we asked students to connect their current knowledge of math and physics,” Ostrovskaya said. “This project allows us to briefly introduce numerical methods and statistical analysis. Students need to develop a mathematical model and use it to make predictions on how the actual vehicle will perform.
“Of course they had to use their imagination and be creative. Some of the teams designed and built some really great cars.”
On judgment day some of the vehicles fared better than others. Some easily soared through the required two billboard frames and landed on the ground in one piece. Others nicked one of the horizontal bars, while others made it through the billboards, but came apart on impact.
The students, whose cars did not successfully complete the test, were allowed to make adjustments in their calculations to obtain the desired results.
“We have a ramp of a certain height and we know exactly how high the top of the ramp and the bottom of the ramp are and we also know how far the bottom of the ramp is from the ground,” said Joshua Freeman, a junior industrial engineering major from Dallas who is a member of Ostrovskaya’s class. “Our goal is to take the theoretical constants we have from their and the mass of our car and figure out where its trajectory is going to be.”
Freeman’s team was one of those that had to redo their calculations after the first run, but once they did that, their car completed its goal in one piece.
“We are kind of predicting what the air drag should be because we can’t get the exact air drag of our car because it is an odd shape,” Freeman said. “Because of that it is going to fall on a pattern that isn’t quite exactly right with our trajectory.”
While the students are getting hands-on experience of the engineering mindset and the different aspects of engineering, they are also being motivated to learn engineering science by showing how it is used in engineering practice.
Part of that motivation, according to students, is the feedback and input they receive from their professor. And, according to students in Ostrovskaya’s class, she excels in this area.
She is willing to take questions and let us ask things,” Freeman said, “I feel open and willing to go up to her and ask, ‘I don’t understand what I did wrong here or the process.’ I want to know what I am not doing right or what I am doing wrong and how it can be done better. She makes it very easy to go and do that.”
Written by Tim Schnettler