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Teaching Engineering Reasoning Using A Beam Deflection Lab

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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

Improving Mechanics & Structural Modeling Courses

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1173.1 - 15.1173.16



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Paper Authors

author page

Natasha Smith University of Southern Indiana

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

Teaching Engineering Reasoning using a Beam Deflection Lab


Well crafted laboratories reinforce theoretical concepts presented in class, but also sharpen students’ technical reasoning skills and provide practice in technical communication. This paper presents an introductory mechanics laboratory on beam deflection, suitable for freshmen engineering courses or as an opening week experiment for Strengths of Materials. The lab consists of 4 distinct experiments, each requiring students to measure maximum deflection of a simply supported beam. In each experiment, a single variable is adjusted (first load, then span, then cross-sectional geometry, and finally material). Although the procedure is likely similar to laboratories typically conducted in Mechanics courses after simple beam theory has been presented, the author suggests alternative objectives and student requirements targeted toward a less experienced audience. The primary goal of the exercise is to model engineering reasoning and begin a discussion on what makes for sound analysis. In conjunction with this goal, a standard for technical reporting also begins to form. To fulfill a secondary purpose, a simple addendum to the experiment is useful to show students the differences between the questions addressed by Statics (i.e. forces on rigid bodies) and those they will face in Strengths of Materials. The final objective is to demonstrate how stiffness is affected by both geometry and material, highlighting implications for design. The lab has been conducted in various forms in both an introductory design course and as a first lab in Strengths of Materials.


Two vital skills for an engineering graduate are the abilities to reason and communicate effectively. ABET outcomes for baccalaureate engineering programs include abilities to "analyze and interpret data" as well as "to communicate effectively" 1. The Boeing Corporation also lists these critical thinking and good communication as skill sets in their published “Desired Attributes for an Engineer.”2 Many have also argued that a harmony of these two skills is necessary to do either well. Cooney et al provide a review of critical thinking in engineering education which includes discussions on writing as a means to assess critical and reflective thinking for both open ended type activities as well as writing to articulate the design process.3 Other organizations such as the Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate (CDIO) initiative and the Foundation for Critical Thinking provide resources for developing these abilities4.

In addition to design projects (now being implemented in the earlier stages of curricula) laboratory work remains one of the principle ways in which students exercise critical thinking and effective professional communication. At the same time, lab exercises can help introduce or solidify engineering concepts presented in the classroom. Agrawal presents objectives for laboratory courses which include critical thinking in the planning and execution as well as for the evaluation of models and experimental data, in addition to effective communication5. These pedagogical purposes should be harmonious but may not be if students' attention is focused on learning too many new concepts at the expense of reasoning through the experiment itself. This is of particular concern for students new to standards of engineering reasoning and reporting.


Smith, N. (2010, June), Teaching Engineering Reasoning Using A Beam Deflection Lab Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16908

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