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A Philosophy of Integrating FEA Practice Throughout the Undergraduate CE/ME Curriculum

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Innovations in Teaching: Mechanics

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

22.83.1 - 22.83.14

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Paper Authors


Jim M. Papadopoulos University of Wisconsin - Stout

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JEREMY J. M. PAPADOPOULOS Jim Papadopoulos, P.E. is a Lecturer in the Engineering and Technology Department of University of Wisconsin – Stout. His Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering is from MIT (where he received the Exxon Fellowship and was awarded the Departmental Instructorship), and he also had post-doctoral training in the Cornell Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics. He has been an R&D engineer for 20 years in areas such as power transmission equipment and paper converting equipment. He is the recipient of 7 patents, and co-author of an MIT Press book on bicycling science, as well as papers on bicycle dynamics and other rigid-body mechanics areas.

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Christopher Papadopoulos University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus

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Christopher Papadopoulos is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Science and Materials at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. He earned B.S. degrees in Civil Engineering and Mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University (1993) and a Ph.D. in Theoretical & Applied Mechanics at Cornell University (1999). Prior to coming to UPRM, Papadopoulos served on the faculty in the Department of Civil Engineering & Mechanics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Papadopoulos has primary research and teaching interests in mechanics, including nonlinear structural analysis, computational mechanics, and biomechanics. He is also active in engineering education and engineering ethics, particularly in mechanics education and appropriate technology.

At UPRM Papadopoulos serves as the coordinator of the Engineering Mechanics Committee, which manages the mechanics courses taken by all engineering majors. He also co-coordinates the Social, Ethical, and Global Issues (SEGI) in Engineering Program and Forums on Philosophy, Engineering, and Technology.

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Vincent C. Prantil Milwaukee School of Engineering

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Vince Prantil is an Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Dr. Prantil received his BS, MS, and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University. His research interests lie in micro-structural material modeling, finite element and numerical analysis. He was a senior staff member at Sandia National Laboratories California in the Applied Mechanics and Materials Modeling departments for eleven years. He joined the mechanical engineering faculty at MSOE in September 2000.

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A Philosophy of Integrating FEA Practice Throughout the Undergraduate CE/ME CurriculumProfessional-quality software for Finite Element Analysis is now routinely bundled with solidmodeling tools, and formerly-complex tasks have been streamlined into a few standard mousepicks (with options to refine as desired). Therefore novices can potentially begin modeling andrunning with just a few minutes of instruction. This raises the question of how such a powerfultool should be used in the undergraduate engineering curriculum, where it may both bolster thelearning process, and develop competence in a valuable professional skill.The idea of integrating professional software into most of the mechanics-based classes raisesperennial questions about engineering, and about learning. We first present a philosophy thatacknowledges and addresses matters such as ‘principles vs. tools’, ‘conceptual framework vs.numerical results’, modeling skills, critical thinking (garbage detection), and ‘analysis vs.synthesis’. Part of the reasoning is based on analogies with well-accepted traditional curriculumcontents. A literature review coherently connects previous justifications for FEA integration.Secondly, we enumerate and discuss the kinds of intellectual foundations and skills that appear tobe important for successful use of FEA, not only for determining specific results, but forinterpreting them within a framework of evolving sophistication. This includes an appreciationof linearity, the mechanics of single or multiple load paths, the tensorial nature of stress, themechanics of long uniform members, the great importance of connections and boundaryconditions, local mesh refinement for convergence, and the interpretation of stress results forductile collapse, fatigue initiation, or brittle failure. Especially, the entire iterative endeavor ofmodeling a complex situation simply in order to approximate the information of interest, shouldbe presented in a way that encourages critical exploration, once students are less stymied byhand-calculation difficulties.Lastly, some specific FEA exercises and lesson contents are described, to suggest ways that thissophisticated modern tool can be integrated into the education of future engineers. Suchexercises have so far been used on the SolidWorks Simulation platform, in classes ranging fromIntroduction to Engineering, up through Advanced Strength of Materials. Informal studentfeedback was always enthusiastic.Based on the author’s two decades of industrial experience, we assert that the powerfulcapabilities of modern FEA can be exploited effectively only by those who develop significantmodeling skills and an appropriate critical perspective – both well-accepted aims in engineeringpedagogy. We also recognize synergy in using FEA to teach many Mechanics topics, wheresuperior mathematical facility need not be the sole gateway to achieving superior understandingor doing competent calculations. For these and other reasons, we argue that it is a good time tointegrate FEA into any level of class where it can be applied.

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