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Learning by Doing: Innovative education program integrates theory with hands-on learning to produce successful engineers

In the third-floor Computer-Aided Design Room of the Engineering Teaching Center at The University of Texas at Austin, students cluster around computer terminals, intent on three-dimensional images of piston parts rotating before their eyes. The course they're taking—Freshman Introduction to Engineering Design and Graphics—is taught by Drs. Ronald Barr and Tom Krueger under the banner of Project PROCEED. The acronym aptly describes a new learn-by-doing model for undergraduate instruction that's currently sweeping the university's Department of Mechanical Engineering. PROCEED, which stands for Project Centered Education, has an ambitious goal: to transform the curriculum in a way that closely integrates theory with practical problem-solving from the first moment of an engineering student's career to the day he or she graduates.

computer model of piston assembly
A computer modeling program helps students create three-dimensional drawings of the parts of a piston assembly, which are also transformed into working models: exploded piston; working piston (requires free Quicktime Player).
"Project-centered learning means hands-on, right away," says Dr. Phil Schmidt, Donald J. Douglass Centennial professor and University Distinguished Teaching professor, who is PROCEED's faculty director.

In this particular class, small teams of students work with an automotive piston assembly to recreate the engineer's original design. The piston assembly is familiar to the few students who have tinkered with cars: an open cylinder that serves as a container within which a slightly smaller solid cylinder slides up and down. That action compresses gasoline and air, which when ignited by a spark from a spark plug, powers a standard automobile engine.

The students must use a three-dimensional computer modeling program to create a working drawing of those parts: first individually, then assembled. In the process, they learn how the separate parts fit together. Next, they interface their rendering with a stress analysis program which generates color plots locating stress concentrations. Finally, they transport that same graphics file into a rapid prototyping machine which builds a physical, three-dimensional representation of the part.

The classroom exercise has important real-world applications. Because of the extremely small clearances between a car's engine parts, a design error of even a few ten-thousandths of an inch will result in an engine that runs inefficiently and wears out fast.

Started in fall 2000 with initial funding from the Ford Motor Company, and now also supported by Applied Materials through both in-kind and cash gifts, PROCEED has to date involved 12 classes and labs and drawn participation from some 27 faculty members. Professors are busy modifying their presentations to foster project-centered learning. Laboratories and classrooms are being revamped with new equipment, including the latest in computer-aided instructional tools.

PROCEED's origins date back to 1996 when a group of faculty interested in curriculum redesign held a series of informal brown bag brainstorming sessions.

"We drew up a kind of wish list of how mechanical engineers really should be educated," Schmidt recalls. "Many of today's entering students have had little prior opportunity to tinker with tools and machinery. So we began moving toward a more hands-on approach in 1998."

Dr. Wood
Dr. Wood uses simple tools, ranging from books through toys and toasters, to demonstrate fundamental principles. For instance, he uses a gaudy plastic toy dump truck to unlock the secrets of several kinds of force. A toaster offers a tangible example of redesigning a machine to reduce the number of parts required for manufacturing.
At the time, Schmidt and several of his colleagues including Dr. Kristin Wood were already exploring teaching innovations such as using plastic toys in freshman classes to demonstrate fundamental principles—with students taking them apart and analyzing how they were designed. From those and other early ideas grew a Student Reverse Engineering Laboratory. Another new project-centered mechanical engineering course, Thermal Fluid Systems, also made it into the 1998 catalog.

More original classes, labs and teaching modules followed, as additional faculty weighed in with new contributions. By September 2000, stimulated by Ford's seed money, the department began redesigning a number of classes with a strong PROCEED component.

Today, the number of PROCEED-related courses has grown to 12. Pilot sections using PROCEED methodology are being offered during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 academic years. The department's goal is to mainstream these courses by fall 2003.

While PROCEED's classes and laboratories vary widely in subject matter, all are rooted in the concept of Project-Centered Education, which places theoretical courses, their corresponding labs and hands-on projects in close synchronicity. It's a radical departure from a tradition in which the labs and theory weren't even necessarily taught in the same semester. But Schmidt is convinced—and many others agree—that "integrating the labs back into the courses" is an idea whose time has come.

"The idea here is that students are introduced to some theoretical topic," he said. "They have an experiment going on that may extend over several weeks. And that experiment requires immediate use of the theory they're learning in class to analyze the data."

Although the laboratory may be held in a separate physical space, theoretical and practical learning are closely coordinated so that one supports the other.

The Reverse Engineering and Prototyping Laboratory, where class projects in Design Methodology, Machine Elements and Thermal-Fluid Systems are carried out, is an excellent example. It's really three separate labs: There's a shop with equipment for parts fabrication; a facility for modification and assembly of small devices, mainly using small hand tools; and a measurement lab housing instruments coupled to computers, which enable students to measure the performance characteristics of devices, including the prototypes they have created. In the process, they learn the value of teamwork, an important aspect to PROCEED.

"The object is to get away from the kind of lab experience where a teaching assistant stands up and demonstrates something to a bunch of students who are standing there passively watching," Schmidt says. "Instead, we are moving toward a model of small-scale apparatus where students, working in groups of three or four, are doing a lot more hands-on work in the laboratory."

The introductory engineering design and graphics course, mentioned earlier, is another prime example. By the time they've completed the semester, the students have gained a good deal of theoretical knowledge and practical experience centered around an important and familiar device--which is exactly the point.

"We want our students to get involved with real technology and see how it all fits together," Schmidt says.

How do the students themselves feel about project-centered education?

Alexis Perez, a junior enrolled in the introductory engineering design and graphics course, recently transferred from the College of Natural Sciences because she felt an engineering degree would be more useful in her future career of patent attorney. "With other classes, you might wonder whether it will apply to what you'll be doing later on, but you know this will always be useful," said Perez, who likes computer design because "it's more precise and there are fewer errors" than with hand drafting.

Her prior background includes courses in physics, statics and C programming. "Those were more about learning basic concepts. Here is where it all comes together," she said.

"I thought it was great, and about time that a class was fully integrated with a hands-on exercise," said Scott Peters, a senior who took upper-division Thermal Fluid Systems last September. Although a planned tour of the university's main power plant was cancelled due to September 11th, "we got to do a realistic and thorough analysis of one of the turbines." Working from a data package handout similar to the notebook that would be kept by a design engineer, the students carefully simulated each stage of the heat generation cycle, from the combustion of hydrocarbons through heat recovery, taking variable atmospheric conditions into account.

The same class also conducted a refrigeration cycle analysis on a mini-refrigerator, using pyrometers (heat measuring instrumentation) and infrared cameras to view the inner workings of the fridge.

"The key to being a good mechanical engineer is to have a hands-on working knowledge of every gadget, machine and system you can," Peters said. "Hands-on stuff like the PROCEED program sharpens a student's engineering intuition. Everything a student experiences firsthand makes them that much more in control of their technology surroundings--and more comfortable to tear things apart, improve them, and create new technology."

Says Dr. Joseph Beaman, chair of the mechanical engineering department: "Our most important product is highly qualified graduates, and PROCEED has really caught the attention of corporations who want the best people they can get. Ford and Applied Materials have led the way, not only in providing critical financial support, but in direct collaboration with our faculty in developing and teaching meaningful projects. These projects are great motivators for our students and are contributing greatly to their readiness to become future leaders in the profession."

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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