It is well known that engineering judgment is critical to effective engineering practice, particularly when design thinking is required. As computer-aided design tools have made detailing far more automated, engineers are being asked to take on higher-level tasks earlier in their careers, necessitating the development of this judgment in undergraduates. This clearly has become a priority for many programs, as evidenced by the growth of project-based learning. Developing this type of judgment and creativity is challenging, but inquiry-based learning will play an important role and well-tested tools for inspiring new types of knowledge acquisition methods in our students are needed.
This paper describes hands-on, inquiry-based learning activities that were recently designed and implemented in the first mechanics course taken by students in the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the US Military Academy in part to help accelerate the development of students’ engineering judgment. These activities enabled and encouraged knowledge acquisition through personal effort which inspires deeper inquiry. This introductory course combines statics and mechanics of materials: the activities described in this paper address both foundational topics. Inspired by inquiry-based learning techniques, these activities are student-focused rather than instructor-led activities and are somewhat open-ended.
The first activity required students to assemble an engine hoist and use four basic scales and basic concepts in statics to determine the weight of an engine block. Students then predicted what would happen to the distribution of the weight as the location of the engine block moved along the engine hoist arm, reinforcing the concepts of reactions and moments of a force. Another activity used an aluminum load cell with longitudinal strain gages to weigh the engine block. This activity reinforced the concepts of stress, strain, and Hooke’s law while exposing students to the world of instrumentation and data acquisition for the first time. In another activity, students were asked to predict strains occurring within a beam in bending – before the concepts and theories of bending had been introduced. Challenging their previous knowledge about axial strain, the linear strain distribution through the depth of a beam was discovered by the students measuring strains at various points through the beam’s depth. Expanding this knowledge in a following lesson, students were required to predict strains on beams of equal cross-sectional area but different shapes (rectangle, square tube, and I-shape). These beams were loaded and strains were measured allowing students to observe the influence of moment of inertia on strain and, therefore, stress. Each of these activities was rich in what might be called “second order” learning, exploring topics (things like Wheatstone Bridges and analog-to-digital data conversion) well beyond the basic concepts and theory being taught.
In addition to describing the activities in detail, this paper provides preliminary assessment data about the effect of the hands-on learning activities on specific learning objectives and more broadly within the context of developing judgment. Qualitative commentary on the use of these activities is also presented.
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