Business Perspectives

January 9, 2014

Hands-on engineering can work before all the lessons learned

Students need the theory before they engineer things, don’t they?

Students need the theory before they engineer things, don’t they?

Maybe not, according to one of the latest teaching approaches that relies heavily on peer cooperation and experiential learning.

It typically is late in their four-year studies before college students can effectively pull together knowledge from their courses and actually apply it – to “engineer” something. Unfortunately many students drop out before experiencing engineering and recognizing their abilities.

University of Kansas mechanical engineering professor Lorin Maletsky, his colleague Doug Kiewig and some graduate teaching assistants have changed that by having freshmen teams design and build products in their first year – before they have all the theory they will eventually need.

That forces innovative thinking rather than working textbook problems that have a known solution. Members draw and rely on the knowledge, imagination and skills of the people they work with just as engineers do, and they actually produce something that can be measured, modified, tested and improved. They see the physical results of their work. All of that leads to a better understanding of what engineers actually do, and how they do it.

That promises to increase the retention rate, and students typically enjoy the experience because it is more like what they perceive engineering to be like on the job.

In Maletsky and Kiewig’s course, reading assignments and resources are posted online. Students are expected to familiarize themselves before getting to class. And the classroom becomes a thinking lab where students are assigned real world problems to solve as best they can. Once a week, an hour lecture is given providing some insight into the issues that are important in their solutions.

Typically, teams of six students work on their own design, analyze their problem, brainstorm potential solutions, pick a solution, develop a schematic and physical model, present it as a concept, and then give a formal presentation – just as an engineering leader or team would do in industry.

The solutions may lack rigor, formulas and detailed theory, but the students have worked the engineering approach, and have begun to understand how more theory would have helped them. They begin to see how the classes they will take later in their career will help them better solve these problems. That in theory should help both retain the students and provide motivation in later classes.

The instructors roam the classroom and meet with students to point out issues they may need to consider and to answer questions.

Students are concurrently taking formal instruction in either computer aided design, or sensors (programming, integration, data collection and analysis). They use industrial software for product design and tolerancing (correctly representing those parts on a manufacturing drawing), and application topics like rapid prototyping, computer aided machining, and computer stress analysis.

In their first assignment students are tasked with taking a physical product apart, picking one aspect or component of the product and improving the design.

For example, they may take a hair dryer apart and improve one component in it. Or they might dismantle a computer hard drive apart and reduce its noise.

In the middle of the semester, they present their problem and their solution to the team of instructors. Then students physically fabricate their solution and modify it so they begin to also learn a few things about taking design to reality.

What does this new approach actually do for the students and engineering? It demonstrates to them the engineering process and what engineers actually do on the job. Students get an immediate taste of engineering work. By doing several projects in these classes and watching other teams, there are many more chances to learn, to fail, to succeed and to experience.

Having a failure is actually an important success in learning. Because the next step in the real world is to then figure out how to pick up the pieces, learn from the mistakes and move forward. This may be the most important thing Maletsky and Kiewig are teaching.

As part of that first six-week project, the team must write a description of how the product functions, select one component to enhance, describe six possible enhancements to the professor (who agrees to one), describe how to measure enhancement, predict the impact of the enhancement, make that enhancement, re-assemble the product so it works, and measure the change in performance.

They have to design the product with their new or modified part and create the assembly using computer aided design software, and use the Internet to find parts or measurement devices and ideas. All teams must use sensors as part of the assignment; they have to document the code they used for the sensor and provide a one page description of how to include the modification if it had to be mass produced.

Challenging? Absolutely.

Are they successful? A team of students were mopping up the floor as I walked into the final presentation of one project last fall. They had a learning moment about pressure and seals. Their product was not successful, but they went through the engineering process, which is the point, and they now recognize the need to consider more aspects than they did. From a product improvement standpoint, surprisingly many of the projects are successful and truly innovative, despite the lack of formal theory.

From a learning standpoint of how engineers approach problems and key considerations, it absolutely is a success. You can see it in the eyes and demeanor of the students.

Maletsky notes, “I’m no longer really surprised at how well the students can do. We have many very good students who are able to think critically and are willing to try creative solutions that may fail, yet ultimately succeed in making them better engineers.”

The students learn by doing – in addition to reading textbooks and listening to lectures. They learn by drawing and dimensioning their parts, and by digging out answers on the Internet. They learn to sell their ideas via presentations and writing. They learn by tearing apart and putting back together. They learn by keeping a budget on the project. They learn by manufacturing at least one part. They learn computer modeling and physical modeling.

There are no previous examples to review because no one else has had these problems to solve. The students have to figure for themselves what the answers are. Getting students immersed in projects is a learning approach that with appropriate guidance works, for all ages.

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