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Introductory Structural Engineering Education Through Computational And Physical Model Building

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Structure and Form in Architectural Engineering Education

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

15.810.1 - 15.810.14



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Paper Authors

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Powell Draper Manhattan College

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Edward Segal Simpson Gumpertz & Heger

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Robert Sicurelli Princeton University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Introductory Structural Engineering Education through Computational and Physical Model Building


This project explored new ways of teaching introductory structural engineering concepts through computational and physical model building. An educational project was organized in which students would study actual structures, create accurate computer models of their geometry, and then build to scale physical models of them. This project is intended to augment the ways that structural engineering is traditionally taught.


This project was inspired by work done at Princeton University and other schools in which physical models of structures have been used to provide examples of exemplary works of structural engineering and to demonstrate engineering principles. At Princeton, for example, models of structures have been used either for museum display or previously built models are used for structural experiments.1 Here we instead sought to examine how a student designing and building a model for loading, experimentation, and display could provide an opportunity for a different type of learning experience.

This project was first tested with a rising sophomore student of engineering. The student had taken first year courses in mathematics and physics. In addition, the student had taken a survey course of exemplary works of structural engineering, but had not yet taken any other engineering courses on, for example, statics or mechanics. This project sought to explore how a model building project could augment or perhaps even supplant traditional approaches to teaching introductory engineering topics.

This project was formed as a collaboration between industry (a structural engineering firm) and academia (a college’s civil engineering department). The student spent the first half of the project at the engineering firm under the guidance of a practicing engineer and the second half in the college’s civil engineering department under the guidance of a member of the faculty there.

First, the student was introduced to three dimensional computer-aided design (CAD). Next, a structure was chosen that the student would be able to visit and study and one for which details could be obtained. The structure chosen for the project was the George Washington Bridge in New York City. With drawings of the bridge and details from technical journals, the student created a three dimensional computer model of the relevant parts of the structure. The three dimensional CAD program Rhinoceros1 was used for this project.2

Next, the student was guided through physical model construction. After investigating material options, the model materials were selected (K’NEX) and then a plan for model construction was arranged. The student had to select an appropriate scale that would adequately represent the structure with the materials available. The student created an Excel spreadsheet to predict how

Draper, P., & Segal, E., & Sicurelli, R. (2010, June), Introductory Structural Engineering Education Through Computational And Physical Model Building Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16762

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