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Fighting “Plug and Chug” Structural Design through Effective and Experiential Demonstrations

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Your Best in 5 Minutes: Demonstrations of Hands-On and Virtual In-Class Teaching Aids

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Joel Lanning University of California, Irvine Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Joel Lanning​ is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at the University of California, Irvine. He specializes in​ seismic design of civil structures such as bridges and buildings. His research focuses on the development of tools and methods used in structural design and those used in experimental physical testing aimed at improving structural resilience during an earthquake. Lanning is passionate about teaching and is also focused on research and development of strategies to use in the classroom. His teaching philosophy includes building a strong learning community within each class and the use of high-impact practices to engage and challenge his students. ​

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Matthew W. Roberts Southern Utah University

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Dr. Roberts has been teaching structural engineering topics for 17 years. He is a professor of engineering at Southern Utah University.

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Structural engineering students are prone to conflating structural design with the ability to “plug-and-chug” prescriptive specification equations or to be “able with the table.” But this relegates structural design to simply being familiar with specification documents. Of course, experienced structural engineers know that a solid conceptual understanding of the underlying structural mechanics and behavior are far more useful, where engineering judgement must be used alongside design specifications. This is especially true for the ever increasing amount of automation offered by structural analysis and design software packages. New engineering grads who learn only to “plug and chug” specification equations for textbook problems will be less creative and will be ill-prepared to interpret computer results and make important decisions with the aid of computer generated designs.

It can be difficult to steer students away from this habit. One way to convince students that behavior is important is to demonstrate structural behaviors in ways that are easily relatable to the applicable specification equations. When coupled with “thoughtful explanations and comparisons, even simple ad hoc activities may trigger “ooooooh moments” and encourage stronger conceptual connections between the equations and structural behavior.

This short paper summarizes many experiential demonstrations along with explanations and important implementation details that may help an instructor teach structural design with a focus on important concepts, linking structural behavior and mechanics to specification equations and design philosophy. A range of engaging student-active demonstrations are presented, from grabbing some coffee stir sticks on the way to class to building an interactive shear wall and diaphragm model for use in the classroom.

Since readers likely have their own ideas for experiential demonstrations, this paper will remain active “on the cloud.” The authors invite future contributions thereby making it a living repository. Since it will remain active on the internet, other media can also be easily added, such as videos and links to augmented reality/VR applications or other applications utilizing future technologies.

Link to this Living Collaborative Paper Containing A Database of Demonstrations:

Lanning, J., & Roberts, M. W. (2019, June), Fighting “Plug and Chug” Structural Design through Effective and Experiential Demonstrations Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32839

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