Engineering projects to research

Well, it’s that time again. Time to start posting a bunch of things here to capture my thoughts about upcoming courses. This fall I’m teaching two major things: a so-called “First Year Seminar” or “FYSEM” called “Hamline Engineering” (see last year’s syllabus here), and a non-majors course called “Physics of Sound and Music” along with the labs (see syllabus from a few years ago here). This post will be about one thing that happened in the FYSEM last year that didn’t go that well. Note that I’ve decided to use this blog to do this kind of thing because I used to use scratch sheets of paper that don’t give me the type of feedback that you give.

Last year I wanted my students to explore lots of different types of engineering. Really the whole class was centered around the idea that most students don’t really know what engineering is coming into college, even though they signal their interest in it 3x more often than they do physics, and that’s for a school that doesn’t have an engineering program! So I wanted them to pair up and prepare one day’s worth of class-time to explore a particular type of engineering. The types were available first-come-first-served and they had anywhere from 1 week to 1 month to prepare. They had to have a ~20 minute mini-presentation on the topic, and a plan for the following ~50 minutes of discussion/activity. They also had to update our google site explaining their type of engineering.

What went well

The pairs of students chose some great engineering types. They basically covered all the major ones I was hoping for along with some cool tangential ones. In class, after a couple times at least, they settled into a short talk and a long engineering challenge based roughly on their field. These ranged from dropping eggs to building towers with paper to building electromagnets to pick up paperclips. The challenges often lead to some great conversations about things like learning from failure, creativity, corporate espionage (spying on other groups), corporate sabotage (wrecking other groups’ designs), time management, and an iterative design process.

What didn’t go well

The presentations were often little more than reading the MIT web page for that particular type of engineering. The same was true of the google site submissions. Also, the challenges were sometimes pretty far removed from the type of engineering they were presenting on.

What I’d like to try

I’d like to have them continue to pick a type of engineering, but to investigate a particular case study, identifying all sorts of issues like learning from failure etc. Take civil engineering, for example. Could they give a report on Boston’s “Big Dig?” Could they look into the challenges that were faced and dealt with, in an effort to better understand the field of engineering? Could they then design the in-class challenge to be a microcosm of the type of challenges found in the case study. For the “Big Dig” maybe they could do something like traffic management on a small scale, or something, possibly involving software.

What I don’t want to lose

The students seemed to genuinely enjoy class when we did the challenges. They jumped up and started working right away, and enjoyed the competition and the discussion afterwards, when we analyzed what we’d learned.

I also think that the MIT copying they did kept this pretty low key form a stress perspective. We do a lot in this class, so I don’t want to kill them with this, though, perhaps, this should get more weight if I can get them to get more out of it.

Your thoughts?

Some ideas you could pursue in the comments below:

  • Here’s a great idea for a/an  ______ engineering case study
  • What kind of rubric do you use to assess the class period?
  • If you don’t offer engineering, why are you running this class?
  • Engineering is too big of a field to ask things like “what is engineering?”
  • I’m teaching a similar class, let’s hook up
  • Why don’t you have them do a major project rather than short ones in one class period?

About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
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4 Responses to Engineering projects to research

  1. reilly1041 says:

    Idea for industrial engineering project:have Ss analyze the line in e cafeteria. How can they improve it? It’s more difficult than it sounds to analyze the line. Could take many days of data collection. What is average total time? What are the different routes? Approx percent going thru each route? Where are trouble spots. How to minimize them? What are constraints?

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      I love it! Our cafeteria is only one year old, and us old-timers still pine for the old one. The new students (what this class is made for) have less to compare it to, but I love the data collection part you talk about.

  2. Joss Ives says:

    Andy. Outside of having the challenges link to the case study, getting them to discuss a case-study while pointing out the engineering problems from their engineering discipline’s perspective would probably get them to engage with thinking about their discipline more deeply than rehashing the MIT pages.

    • Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

      Yeah, I think so too. The more I think about it, the more “points” I want to give to this. That, of course, gets my gears turning about how this could be an SBG course 🙂

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