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Theory and Commercial Software - Finding the Balance in a Finite Elements Course

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Development of Computational Tools

Tagged Division

Computers in Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1246.1 - 23.1246.14

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Paper Authors


Gregory K Watkins P.E. California State University, Chico

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Dr. Gregory Watkins received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from North Carolina State University, a master of Engineering Management from Old Dominion University, and a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is an associate professor in the department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing at California State University Chico. He previously taught in the Engineering Technology department at UNC Charlotte and the Engineering Technologies Division at Central Piedmont Community College. He also has nine years of industrial work experience.

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Theory and Commercial Software Finding the Balance in a Finite Elements CourseThe mechanical engineering program at (name of institution) includes a three-course sequence intechnical computing and analysis. Introduction to Technical Computing begins the sequence,and is a foundation course that introduces commercial software commonly used in the solution ofengineering problems such as Excel and Matlab. The second course, Equation SolvingTechniques, covers numerical analysis, analytical methods, and equation solving techniques formechanical engineering design. It utilizes Matlab in a less structured environment, relying moreon student-written programs. Both courses are prerequisites for the final one of the sequence,Finite Element Analysis (FEA).The FEA course has traditionally concentrated on the theory of the method, focusing on thedevelopment of the finite element formulation from fundamental governing equations. Studentslearn (or are exposed to) the stiffness method, Galerkin’s method, isoparametric formulation, andthe work-energy method. Application areas include elasticity, vibration, and heat transfer, butmost application problems necessarily lack complexity so that they can be solved by hand orthrough non-specific computational software such as Excel or Matlab. The course traditionallyhas not included any exposure to, or instruction in, the use of commercial FEA software.Students typically complete the sequence in the spring of their junior year before beginning thetwo course Capstone Design sequence in the senior year. One of the major tenets of the capstoneprogram is for students to utilize competencies gained in their first three years of study in thesolution of a real-world engineering design problem. Application of the finite element method ingeneral, and the use of commercial software in particular, are often expected of students workingon design projects.Substantial anecdotal evidence from capstone faculty advisors and sponsors, along with datafrom senior exit surveys and employer feedback, all point to the same conclusion. That is, whileour students may be well versed in the theory of finite elements, they are not skilled its properapplication via commercial software designed specifically for the purpose. Students strugglewith basic concepts such as model simplification, choice of element, 2D assumptions, meshquality, controls, and refinement, appropriate boundary conditions, and even unrealistic linearelastic assumptions of material behavior. Many students commonly produce analyses that arepoorly posed, unnecessarily computationally intensive, and contain meaningless results. Moreoften, students are unable to even complete the analysis due to modeling errors that prevent thesoftware from obtaining a solution at all, realistic or not.In response, the FEA course at (name of institution) has been modified to include some basicinstruction in applying the method via commercial software. These units follow the appropriatetheory-based discussion, and augment (but do not replace) traditional homework exercises wherethe method is applied by hand or through non-specific computational software. Emphasis isplaced on proper use of the software including its underlying assumptions and limitations.Assessment of the curricular changes is accomplished through before and after surveys ofstudents, feedback from capstone advisors and sponsors, and through senior exit survey data.

Watkins, G. K. (2013, June), Theory and Commercial Software - Finding the Balance in a Finite Elements Course Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.

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