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Herding CATS: Weaving Coherent Application Threads through a Mechanical Engineering Curriculum to Facilitate Course-to-Course Connectivity and Improve Material Retention

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Student Learning and Assessment I

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.770.1 - 22.770.11



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Paper Authors


Donald Wroblewski Boston University

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Don Wroblewski is an Associate Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Boston University, and has been the Associate Chair of Undergraduate Aerospace Studies since 1998. He is a two-time winner of the department award for Excellence in Teaching and one of two inaugural winners of the College of Engineering’s Innovative Engineering Education Fellow award. He has been active in both curriculum and course innovations. He has developed seven new courses including an on-line Mechanics course and the Aerospace capstone design course, and eight new lab experiences. He was the architect of the Aerospace concentration within the Mechanical Engineering program and one of the architects of a major redesign of the Mechanical Engineering design curriculum. He has been a member of Boston University’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and of the Provost’s Faculty Advisory Board on Distance Education. Don received his B.S. from the Pennsylvania State University, and his M.S. and Ph.D. from University of California Berkeley, all in Mechanical Engineering. He is a registered Professional Engineer.

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Herding CATS: Weaving Coherent Application Threads through a Mechanical Engineering Curriculum to Facilitate Course-to- Course Connectivity and Improve Material Retention  Mechanical Engineering is a broad and varied field, one reason why it is a popular choice forstudents pursuing engineering degrees. One down side of this breadth is that applications usedas contextual examples in core courses are also varied and diverse: e.g., bridges in introductorymechanics, I-beams in mechanics of materials, power plants in thermodynamics, wings in fluidmechanics, etc.. Though useful in focusing students on the topic at hand and exposing the broadnature of the discipline, this compartmentalized approach can hinder both material retention andstudent understanding of system-level integration and interaction of the various core concepts.Coherent Application Threads (CATs) are meant to address this issue. CATs are specificengineering application examples that are woven through the fabric of the MechanicalEngineering (ME) curriculum, exposing students to the varied aspects of one application in thecontext of core ME principles covered in engineering science courses. CATs are topics ofcurrent interest, ideally connected to department research thrust areas and concentrations, thatwill follow cohorts through their 4-year curriculum. CATs are implemented through a variety ofactivities: lecture modules, projects, homework problems, example problems, and laboratoryexperiences. These are integrated through a Website that provides a framework for thecoursework, as well as a portal for independent inquiry into related topics.The concept of CATs draws inspiration from Aeronautical Engineering for which exists aninherent application thread—an aircraft—touched upon throughout the curriculum andculminating in capstone design. The result is a more unified, though admittedly narrower, viewof fundamental engineering concepts and an exposure to a critical systems engineering lesson—that various discipline-specific problems (aerodynamics, structures, etc) cannot be studied inisolation, but must be addressed in an integrated manner. The goal of CATs in the MEcurriculum is to emulate this, while still retaining the broader view of the discipline.Though the main motivation for CATs is material retention, they can also address several othercritical pedagogical issues, including: framing engineering topics in the larger societal context;exposing students to the importance of lifelong learning; and engaging students through topics ofcurrent interest. The paper will cover the development and pilot testing of one coherentthread—wind turbines, including how the thread is mapped into the core curriculum, typicalactivities, on-line supplemental learning modules, and assessment and evaluation tools. Inaddition, the sustainability of the concept will also be addressed, including engaging faculty andstudents and institutionalizing the procedure for selecting, implementing and reviewing CATs.

Wroblewski, D. (2011, June), Herding CATS: Weaving Coherent Application Threads through a Mechanical Engineering Curriculum to Facilitate Course-to-Course Connectivity and Improve Material Retention Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18051

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