June 24, 2017
June 24, 2017
June 28, 2017
Stress, strain, and the relationship between the two are foundational concepts within mechanics of materials. However, because these phenomena are complex and are often not directly observable, students often have trouble internalizing the concepts in consistently applicable ways (Brown & Montfort, 2013). Mohr’s circle diagrams are often used as an important tool for visually representing the relationship between stresses and strains within a material. Indeed, Mohr’s Circle has been identified as a “threshold concept” in engineering: a critical concept that integrates multiple important modes of thinking within a discipline (Meyer & Land, 2003; Quinlan et al., 2012). However, because these threshold concepts are often complex and difficult to learn, they require careful teaching approaches to ensure that students are able to combine ideas and navigate the complexity effectively. Computational tools are sometimes employed to help teach or illustrate the Mohr’s circle technique through computer simulation, but these simulations often use a “configuring approach” to computational thinking, in which students alter input parameters of the system and the program outputs the resulting diagram (Carbonell, Romero, Martínez, & Flórez, 2013; Lee, Ryu, & Park, 2014; Osueke & Onokwai, 2015). This study presents a method for simultaneously teaching Mohr’s circle diagram concepts and computational literacy through a “programming approach” in which students are asked to construct, operate, and interpret results from a computational simulation. The research question is: How can we effectively scaffold students’ computational thinking to make meaning of Mohr’s Circle diagrams following a “programming approach?”
This study pulls from data collected from students in an undergraduate mechanics of materials course at large, Midwestern university. Specific participants include 15 students who chose to participate in an optional assignment to determine the durability of support columns under various loads at a hypothetical sports stadium. The participating students used MATLAB to construct a computational model that would calculate and construct Mohr’s Circle diagrams for given inputs. The students then used this model to analyze hypothetical strain gauge data provided in the assignment to determine whether or not individual support columns in a section of seating were at risk of failure. Projects were then graded using a rubric that considered both the computational and disciplinary elements of the assignment to identify how effectively students engaged in the overall process.
Initial results show that students who scored lower on the project tended to struggle more in the results and discussion sections, possibly indicating difficulty in making connections between the computational, mathematical, and physical models. Interestingly, lower performing students also tended to struggle in the abstract/summary section, further suggesting that these students may have struggled to make meaningful connections between the various representations of the system.
This study is relevant because computational literacy and modeling and simulation skills have been identified as important qualities of engineers in the modern workplace (American Society for Engineering Education, 2013). However, finding ways to effectively incorporate the teaching of these skills into existing engineering curriculum is an ongoing challenge. This study provides a framework for future research on implementing computational literacy oriented learning experiences in civil, mechanical, and materials engineering coursework.
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