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Connecting Theory and Software: Experience with an Undergraduate Finite Element Course

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session


Tagged Division

Computers in Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.395.1 - 26.395.11



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Paper Authors


Natasha Smith P.E. University of Southern Indiana

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Dr. Smith is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Indiana.

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Julian Ly Davis University of Southern Indiana

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Julian received his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in Engineering Mechanics in 2007. He spent a semester teaching at community college in the area and then spent two years at University of Massachusetts continuing his research in finite element modeling and biomechanics and continuing to teach. In 2010, he began his current tenure track position at the University of Southern Indiana.

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Connecting Theory and Software: Experience with an Undergraduate Finite Element CourseOver the past several years, the commercial finite element software industry has seensignificant growth in both capability and reach. As such, today’s undergraduate students haveaccess to sophisticated, yet easy to use simulation tools. For better or worse, use of the toolsthemselves requires neither an understanding of foundational principles nor a workingknowledge of the finite element method. One could make the case that this is part of thenatural evolution of any new tool (as one no longer needs to be a mechanic to drive a car). Onthe other hand, users absolutely need to know enough to understand the consequences oftheir own modeling choices (e.g. how boundary conditions are applied, element selection,meshes size, etc.). Thus, the proliferation of FEA software in industry (1) necessitatestreatment of these tools at the undergraduate level and (2) suggests a new balance be struckbetween the software and theory in these courses.This paper details the authors’ experience with a first course in finite element analysis within anundergraduate only engineering curriculum. In particular, the struggle to find a rationalbalance between FEA theory and practical use of software will be discussed. Within the course,students complete a variety of assignments using a mixture of resources to include Matlab byMathworks, Dassault’s SolidWorks, and MSC Patran/Nastran. The course culminates in a self-selected student project requiring they assess the impact of modeling choices on results ofparticular interest.One important finding is the severe limitations of some commercial packages in developing onedimensional models, an important stepping stone to understanding of FEA theory. In addition,the paper studies the impact of prior programming experience on student’s ability to succeed inthe course. Finally, the authors have experimented with a course textbook which emphasizesuse of software and alternatively, a text with more comprehensive treatment of FEMfundamentals.

Smith, N., & Davis, J. L. (2015, June), Connecting Theory and Software: Experience with an Undergraduate Finite Element Course Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23734

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