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Forming Connections between Theory and Real Devices in a General Statics Course

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Statics and Dynamics in Mechanical Engineering

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Jennifer E. Holte University of St. Thomas

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Jennifer Holte is a volunteer educator and a Distinguish Service Professor at the University of St. Thomas. She holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Minnesota (1996) and has been teaching adults and youth in a variety of settings over the past 20 years. She has taught advanced courses in Mechanism Design for the University of Minnesota, but finds herself in recent years shifting her focus to more foundational learning. She teaches Statics, Mechanics of Materials, Dynamics, and Machine Design for the University of St. Thomas, and in 2014 she developed a Math Fundamentals course for the Minnesota Literacy Council which paired immigrant English Language Learners with American-born students struggling with basic math.

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Forming Connections between Theory and Real Devices in a General Statics Course

Engineering students often express a lack of connection between their course work and real engineering problems. This points to a significant need in engineering education to increase connections between real devices and the theory we teach. These connections should be made early and often in an engineering student’s course of study, and in a way that goes beyond demonstration-type labs.

The paper describes a one-hour exercise aimed at allowing students to make their own connections between theory and a real device. Students, mid-way through their Statics course, are presented with a brief overview of how familiar concepts used to analyze frames and trusses can also be applied to simple machines. They are given a brief introduction to mechanical advantage. A number of wall-mounted can crushers and cans are brought to the classroom. Then the students are presented with a series of questions to answer. The questions begin as simply as “Can you draw a 2D diagram of the machine?” and progress to asking students to compare mechanical advantage at various positions and to compare different designs. Students work in pairs. The instructor circulates and gives some advice when asked, but also encourages the students to consult other teams. A pre- and post-exercise quiz is given to assess students’ ability to model other simple devices. The students are also asked to write one paragraph about their experience and bring it to the next class period.

The objective is to help students overcome their uncertainties and misconceptions in relating course materials to real devices and to develop confidence in their own ability to apply their knowledge to new concepts. The amount of progress through the analysis questions is not specifically part of the goal in the exercise; very few students get to a point of comparing different devices. The typical student struggles with simply identifying input and output forces and drawing them on a sketch. In their writing the students reveal that the exercise was challenging and “much different than analyzing similar problems in the textbook”. Yet, the majority of the students react positively and express a desire to do more.

The paper describes the exercise in detail. Outcomes, based on student reactions in the writing exercise and the pre- and post-exercise quiz, are presented and discussed in light of the goals.

Holte, J. E. (2016, June), Forming Connections between Theory and Real Devices in a General Statics Course Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26940

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