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Visualizing Structural Behavior: Using Physical Models In Structural Engineering Education

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1996 Annual Conference


Washington, District of Columbia

Publication Date

June 23, 1996

Start Date

June 23, 1996

End Date

June 26, 1996



Page Count


Page Numbers

1.524.1 - 1.524.8



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Paper Authors

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Karl F. Meyer

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Stephen J. Ressler

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Thomas Lenox

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

Session 3515

Visualizing Structural Behavior: Using Physical Models in Structural Engineering Education

Karl F. Meyer, Stephen J. Ressler, Thomas A. Lenox United States Military Academy

This paper describes the use of physical models for in-class demonstrations in an undergraduate structural steel design course. The eight models described herein were developed by the authors and have all been used successfully in the classroom for at least four consecutive semesters. We have found that these models significantly enhance students’ understanding of structural behavior and improve their ability to visualize three-dimensional structural systems.


In general, design of steel structural systems is accomplished by first envisioning every possible failure mode -- or limit state -- for the system and its constituent members; then proportioning the members such that none of these limit states can occur under the required loading conditions. Modern steel design codes specify design strength equations corresponding to each limit state, thus providing designers with a consistent, rational basis for assessing the adequacy of a given member. The typical introductory steel design course is principally concerned with teaching these strength equations and their application, for all pertinent limit states associated with various types of structural components--tension members, compression members, beams, beam-columns, and connections.

Herein lies the great challenge for the instructor in an undergraduate steel course: to fully understand a particular design strength equation, the student must also understand (and be able to visualize) the associated structural behavior. The student who cannot visualize lateral-torsional buckling, for example, generally cannot correctly apply the lateral-torsional buckling strength equation in the design of a beam. The student who does not understand the nature of block shear cannot possibly design a bolted tension connection. The instructor’s challenge, then, is to convey the nature of the structural behavior associated with each limit state. The task is not an easy one: many steel failure modes are quite complex, and the differences between them are often subtle.

We firmly believe that the best means of communicating steel member behavior in the classroom is through the use of physical models. Thus we have designed and constructed a variety of physical models and have used them extensively in our introductory structural steel design course, taught at the United States Military Academy. In developing these models, we focused on three principal objectives:

- Each model must clearly illustrate the particular aspects of structural behavior most relevant to the design of the corresponding type of member;

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Meyer, K. F., & Ressler, S. J., & Lenox, T. (1996, June), Visualizing Structural Behavior: Using Physical Models In Structural Engineering Education Paper presented at 1996 Annual Conference, Washington, District of Columbia. 10.18260/1-2--6397

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