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ASU Gets Hands-On With Engineering Curriculum

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Ivan Kirkpatrick
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Practical Engineering Education
Ivan Kirkpatrick   8/19/2011 12:31:33 PM
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I can really appreciate the practical aspects of an engineering curriculum.  As interesting as the theoretical foundations are, engineering requires a practical approach.  To me the Scientists were usually engaged in more theory and research while the engineers were usually trying to figure out how to put some of those interesting discoveries to work.

A good hands on education that emphasizes solutions to problems is usually appreciated by engineering students.  

Charles Murray
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Great example of good teaching methods
Charles Murray   8/19/2011 12:49:37 PM
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It can be easy to criticize engineering curricula for not providing a hands-on learning experience, but hands-on experience can be difficult and expensive for universities. Kudos to The MathWorks for lending a helping hand here. Engineering programs need this kind of help to provide a solid learning experience.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Great example of good teaching methods
Beth Stackpole   8/19/2011 1:01:03 PM
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It seems to me that more participation from vendors like MathWorks should be a no-brainer. By providing their software and support to engineering programs and doing their part to add a practical slant to the curriculum, they get a built-in potential customer base as graduating students are already versed and hooked on their programs.

There is definitely lots of activity in terms of design tool vendors sponsoring student competitions and doing regular donations of software. Let's hope that all of the effort pays off in terms of helping to fuel this shift.

TJ McDermott
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Re: Practical Engineering Education
TJ McDermott   8/19/2011 3:50:49 PM
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The literal nuts and bolts are being ignored.  Matlab / Solidworks in the curriculum gives a more practical basis, but you're still talking about simulations.  There should also be something tangible, something memorable to the class.  Doing a root-cause failure analysis on the 737 skin failure earlier this year works well in the Matlab simulations (varying rivet hole size, for instance). But that should be followed by several lab demonstrations to prove the Matlab simulations actually jibe with the real world.  Watching a test to failure of something they initially design will be a memory students carry for their entire life.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Practical Engineering Education
Beth Stackpole   8/20/2011 8:37:10 AM
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So are you saying TJ, that providing the real-world design tools in the classroom to do simulation or virtual prototpying doesn't go far enough in terms of delivering that "nuts and bolts" education? Are you saying that there needs to be a hands-on physical prototyping aspect as well so students get their hands "dirty" not just with the technology tools, but with "bending real metal" etc. to learn by doing? If so, that's an interesting point given all of the focus today on virtual prototyping.

TJ McDermott
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Re: Practical Engineering Education
TJ McDermott   8/21/2011 1:59:55 AM
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That is EXACTLY what I'm saying, Beth.

The focus on virtual prototyping is because it is inexpensive; electrons are essentially free, while cutting metal, or mixing chemicals, or building chips all cost money.  The low-cost approach is not necessarily the best approach when it comes to education!  It's awarding a building contract to the lowest bidder for the foundations of your career.

I believe the "classic" rounded education provided by most universities today is a waste of time and money.  Why is a liberal arts education segment necessary for an engineer?  I got NOTHING from that portion of my education.  Well, maybe not "nothing".  I know I will NEVER pick up another Flannery O'Conner book ever again.  But I would probably not have in the first place, so let's call that a wash.

Engineering classes are taught simple to complex, has to be that way.  But they're taught almost as an end to themselves.  The student ends up with basic building blocks, but universities do not do a good job tying them into an integrated structure.  The student leaves with a degree, and a jumble of blocks with no guidance as to how to put them together.  That falls to their first employer.

ASU has the right idea, but it is just the first step.  Simulations, virtual prototyping, by themselves, are not going to be memorable to a student.  People experience this virtual world every day now; it's common.  Necessary, but common.  The simulation tools are a great way to learn, but students also need to see that the simulation actually SIMULATES the real world.  The only way to do this is to duplicate the simulation results with a real test, to prove that what happens inside a computer is in fact an accurate representation what will really happen.

Take those simulations, have each build on the previous one, culminating in a real world build and ultimate static test to failure, and there will be a memory that lasts a lifetime, and with it a superior education.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Practical Engineering Education
Beth Stackpole   8/21/2011 6:12:25 PM
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TJ, I think your point about needing to integrate the physical prototyping with the newer virtual prototyping stuff is sound--the digital world is never going to fully supplant building something tangible, and learning the proper intersection between the two at an early stage is obviously a core lifelong skill engineers are going to need to master.

It seems like all of the zillions of student competitions I hear and read about all the time are definitely a good way to strike some of that balance. But you raise a good point about needing to integrate that same kind of hands-on work into the day-to-day stuff done in the classroom. Maybe engineering programs really do need to incorporate a residency or apprenticeship. But even if it evolves that way, I still think having a solid liberal arts background is important as well. It's called well-rounded balance.

TJ McDermott
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Re: Practical Engineering Education
TJ McDermott   8/21/2011 6:25:51 PM
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Who defines "well rounded"?  The university which is trying to make a profit?  The classes were uninteresting, uninspiring, in some cases downright repulsive (Flannery O'Connor, take note!).  The catastrophic failures class was a very cool history class; it tied history and engineering together.

When I went home on break, I talked about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse.  My father proceeded to tell me something NOT taught in the engineering history class:  that the insurance salesman who sold the policy on the bridge POCKETED the premium, thinking "bridges don't collapse".  The salesman commited suicide.  There IS a lot to be said for a broad base for education, but the mind-numbing way it is currently taught makes it practically worthless.

History must be taught (else we are bound to repeat it).  But the manner in which it is taught is almost guaranteed to cause it to be ignored.  James Burke and his Connections series on PBS would be a terrific example of how to teach history.

The competitions are fun, but again, they stand alone as ends unto themselves.  An integrated approach will give more and make a better graduate.

jmiller
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Internships
jmiller   8/21/2011 9:11:00 PM
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When I graduated from Iowa State they had just started to encourage internships at some point during your college studies.  Now I know they stress them more than ever.  An internship typically includes the summer and either the fall after or the spring semester before but wither way a good 7 months working in an engineering environment in incredibly valuable and I encourage any student to take advantage of the opportunity.  As for employers, this can be a great way to find good engineers that you may want to hire in the future.  It can be a win, win.

Beth Stackpole
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Re: Internships
Beth Stackpole   8/22/2011 7:08:39 AM
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Internships are a definite win-win for the students and the prospective employers no matter what industry or profession. But the internships need to be structured and tied to the curriculum that's being taught in the schools as opposed to being a check box for the student--show up at the job and get the credits. That kind of laissez faire attitude doesn't help the engineer-in-training or the employer.

 

 

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