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Being Dr. Evil: Engaging Students With Humorous Project Premises

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

Improving ME Education: Trends in Mechanical Engineering I

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.303.1 - 12.303.17



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Paper Authors


Stephen McClain Baylor University

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Stephen T. McClain is an Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He received his B.S. in mechanical engineering from The University of Memphis in 1995, and he received his M.S. (1997) and Ph.D. (2002) degrees in mechanical engineering from Mississippi State University. Dr. McClain has taught classes in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, thermal systems design, convection heat transfer, internal combustion engines, and experimental design and uncertainty analysis.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Being Dr. Evil: Engaging Students with Humorous Project Premises


Design projects or open-ended problems are assigned throughout the engineering curriculum at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). In senior design courses, assigning real- world design projects is imperative to prepare the students for the job they may be performing the following year. In the basic engineering science courses, however, finding design projects that engage the students, that demonstrate the real-world applications of the basic engineering science, and that do not seem like “busy-work” to the students requires imagination. Over the past four years, humorous projects, based on the Austin Powers movie trilogy (parodies of the James Bond movie series and other action and espionage movies), have been extremely successful in keeping students engaged in basic engineering-science projects. Three examples of “Dr. Evil” projects are discussed. One of the projects was assigned in a section of ME 242 Thermodynamics II course and involved the design of Rankine-Brayton combined cycle power plant. The second project was assigned in a section of ME 321 Introduction to Fluid Mechanics and required the students to determine the thrust-reverser turn angle on the Virtucon Inc. corporate jet necessary to stop the jet when landing on the short runway at Dr. Evil’s Secret-Lair Island. The final project, assigned in ME 455 Thermal Systems Design, requires the students to design a hot-water heating system for the Secret-Lair’s Engineering Office Building. While being funny and engaging students, the projects have also been very useful in 1) providing a ghost audience for the students’ technical documents, 2) introducing environmental and ethical concepts, 3) introducing the bidding process, 4) demonstrating the engineering-related implausibility of plots common to many “evil villain-world domination” films.


In many ways, this paper may seem to be just another example of what happens when a class clown grows up to become a professor [1-5]. However, the benefits of using humor while teaching are well documented [6-8]. The process of learning is uncomfortable! Teaching with active learning requires asking students questions about material that has not been presented or about material that has only been partially presented. When asked a question to which a person does not know the answer, the individual naturally feels uneasy. Classroom humor relaxes the student and promotes active learning.

Current engineering pedagogy includes the use of design projects throughout the engineering curriculum. In senior-level courses, students are normally motivated and do not need a comical pretense for design projects. At the senior level, students fully understand the relationship between the projects and the work that they may be performing in a few short months.

In sophomore and junior-level engineering courses, which are primarily basic engineering sciences, students often do not understand the purpose of design projects. The level of the material presented in the sophomore and junior-level courses requires that design projects be “birds-eye view” projects. For example in an applied thermodynamics course where power cycle basics are covered, students can “design” a power system, but many of the real component engineering details cannot be addressed by the students. Because of the lack of engineering

McClain, S. (2007, June), Being Dr. Evil: Engaging Students With Humorous Project Premises Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--1923

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