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Helping Students to Feel Mechanics

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Teaching Statics, Dynamics, and Mechanics of Materials

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Paper Authors


Ryan Barrage University of Waterloo

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Candidate for MASc. in Civil Engineering (Structural)

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G Wayne Brodland P.Eng. University of Waterloo

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Dr. Brodland has a longstanding interest in engineering education and has built dozens of models to aid student learning. He hold awards in teaching and in research and is actively involved in the Ideas Clinic, a major experiential learning initiative at the University of Waterloo.

He also actively studies the mechanics of biological cells. He and his team spent several decades investigating a critical step in embryogenesis called neural tube formation, developing novel instruments and computational models to aid their quest. More recently their interest has shifted to learning how cancer cells detach from a primary tumor and begin the process of metastasis.

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Rania Al-Hammoud P.Eng. University of Waterloo

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Dr. Al-Hammoud is a Faculty lecturer (Graduate Attributes) in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Al-Hammoud has a passion for teaching where she continuously seeks new technologies to involve students in their learning process. She is actively involved in the Ideas Clinic, a major experiential learning initiative at the University of Waterloo. She is also responsible for developing a process and assessing graduate attributes at the department to target areas for improvement in the curriculum. This resulted in several publications in this educational research areas.
Dr. Al-Hammoud won the “Ameet and Meena Chakma award for exceptional teaching by a student” in 2014 and the "Engineering Society Teaching Award" in 2016 from University of Waterloo. Her students regard her as an innovative teacher who continuously introduces new ideas to the classroom that increases their engagement.

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This paper assesses the use of physical models as teaching tools in mechanics. These tools were used to introduce engineering theory as part of first and second year civil engineering mechanics courses. The model kits were designed to cover: arches, Gothic cathedrals, suspension bridges, tanks and culverts, dams and retaining walls, point equilibrium, rigid body equilibrium, and beam statics. They were designed in a way to allow the students to feel forces and experience them targeting a deeper learning rather than surface comprehension of mechanics concepts. The beam activity is discussed here, as an example of how the activities work. Students were given the opportunity to work with simply supported beams. The kits were comprised of two pin supports, a wooden beam, two scales, three wooden blocks intended to represent uniformly distributed loads, and a custom made torque tool. The goal of the activity was to provide the students with a sense of how forces act in a mechanically stable structure before being introduced to the mathematical rigor. From the activity, the students are expected to develop an intuition for how reactions are produced, the effect of uniformly distributed loads and their equivalent point loads, and the concept of moments (how they are produced, direct application and its independence of position). The activities were designed to challenge the students’ intuition, target misconceptions and engage them more in critical thinking. To assess the value gained by utilizing these models, the students were presented with questionnaires prior to participation in the activities. The questions are designed to gauge the students’ understanding of core concepts with respect to their intuition, rather than mathematical rigor. An example of such a question from the Gothic cathedral activity is: “Give an example of how assembly sequencing is important in building construction”. The same questions were also presented to the students after participation in the activities to assess their gained knowledge. This paper demonstrates the validity of inductive learning. In contrast to standard education, where students are presented with the theory first, the students are encouraged to make the connections between core concepts on their own via experimentation. Following this, the students are presented with the theory, with the expectation that they are able to understand the principles intuitively as they are presented with the relevant equations. Although all the students experienced the hands-on mechanics activities in their first year, the theory was not explained until subsequent courses. The theory explained to the students builds from the intuition developed from these activities, reinforcing what they have learned. The goal of inductive learning is to guide the students away from memorization, where they are limited to only solving problems they have already seen, and shift towards a critical thinking framework, where they can abstract what they have learned to more complex problems. Students expressed appreciation of these models. Some of the comments were: “It was nice to feel where the tension was”. “I learned how to apply it to real life rather than memorizing it for an exam”.

Barrage, R., & Brodland, G. W., & Al-Hammoud, R. (2017, June), Helping Students to Feel Mechanics Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28433

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