A report on a modern engineering education method
I started teaching structural dynamics course in 2013. As a newly graduated PhD, I took it seriously – I followed the best textbooks of the field and went fully into the remarkable world of differential equations of motion. Everyone is lecturing like that, so why shouldn’t I, right? Fortunately for my students, I shortly began to realize that dynamics could be much more attractive and visual subject.
In VILNIUS TECH Faculty of Civil Engineering the course of structural dynamics is being taught to the 4th (final) year of bachelor students. These soon-to-be engineers have a good background in mechanics of materials, structural analysis and design of steel, concrete and timber structures. In other words – they are capable, but a little tired of integrals and differentials. It is exciting to challenge them, but you need to work hard to get their attention!
In 2017, I introduced a new option for my students – to make a creative project instead of taking the final exam (Fig. 1). This learning method appealed to them and over last 5 years, it became more and more popular among students. Last year 14 of 63 students in my course chose this path; 9 of those 14 achieved highest possible grade. In the future, this teaching method may change the classical lecturing approach entirely. And for good reasons. In this report, I will describe how it works and why I would recommend similar approach to other lecturers. I will share my good and not so good experiences guiding these projects, which might be helpful for those who might try this in any other engineering subject.
Fig. 1. Students are about to start their project
My course is an introduction to structural dynamics. It is worth 3 ECTS and lasts 12 weeks. Every week we have one lecture meeting (1.5 h) where the entire course participates (50-80 students). Every second week we have practical seminars in computer classrooms for smaller student groups. These seminars are dedicated to computations – I teach coding dynamics problems in Matlab and a commercial FEM program (for now it is Autodesk Robot structural analysis). This practical part of the course (with group homework assignments) sums up to 40 % of the final grade. Other 60 % remains for the final exam, or, if students choose so, – making a creative project.
Why do I call it creative project, anyway? First reason is that this project does not have a strict definition as other study projects usually do. It does not have written assignment or any formal requirements. Project starts with a free ideation stage (design thinking approach). It is up to students to make their own description and work plan. Whether that would be an experiment, computational analysis or real structure investigation – they should decide what they would like to achieve, make work schedule and follow their deadlines. That said, I always help and consult students. When they come up with a general idea, we gradually give it a framework. In the end, I would like to see critical thinking, quantitative and qualitative analysis of their problems. Good conclusions and reflections are essential, independent of the goals achieved. Second important aspect is that this project is voluntary. Students, who like to learn in a more traditional way, can take the final exam consisting of several problems to solve and questions to answer. However, students who are more proactive about their studies have an opportunity to create a motivating and engaging project plan.
Up until now, I suggested three paths of creative projects that students could follow:
• DIY projects, where they would build a dynamic structural model from scratch
• Modeling structures with educational “Pasco” kit
• Monitoring and analyzing real life structures
We might come up with other types of projects in the future. It is all about creative and innovative thinking. The diversity of assignments is important. As this project is not obligatory in the course, it has to attract students. They would choose project topic depending on their personalities, hobbies, interests in engineering etc. When students define their projects themselves, they tend to give more effort to complete it. Further, I will explain more about each abovementioned project paths.
DIY projects appeals to students who like “hands on” learning. Those who are “makers” and like to play with real materials, has some experience in wood/metal/electronics workshops. These projects are focused on making something from nothing. If students succeed making a working structural model from an initial sketch, they get a real satisfaction from it (Fig. 2).
It needs to be mentioned that there are some pitfalls for these types of projects. From my experience, students might overestimate their capabilities or could be carried away with “making” rather than studying and understanding main principles of dynamics. An example of bad management could be one of the first DIY projects we made in this course (Fig. 3). Students made a fantastic looking building model, but failed to perform any sensible dynamic measures and/or calculations. It was a communication problem between lecturer (me) and the students. Eventually we found some solutions, but it ended up being a mediocre project.
Fig. 2. Various student DIY projects – from primitive structures to an advanced vibrating platform
Arguably, the best part of these DIY projects is learning to use microcomputers, such as Arduino (Fig. 2, Fig. 7, and Fig. 9b). I usually supply students with most of the needed components, but I would not give detailed explanations. In my surprise, several student groups successfully found out how to use them. They would connect all the electronics, write the code, make measurements and post-process data. Off course, most part of it might be found online, but there is still a lot to learn. On top of that, some students use 3D printers (Fig. 2b); make motor speed controls (Fig. 2d, Fig. 7). All this knowledge and skills are beyond the formal scope of this course, but I would argue they are very important in modern engineering education. In addition, students would achieve them without noticing it, without “boring studying”!
Fig. 3. 2019 students’ DIY model of concrete. Beautiful, but not very successful in terms of dynamic analysis
Projects focusing on real life structures allow students to measure vibrations of a chosen bridge, tower, building or other existing structure. I encourage students to find actual designer of the structure and ask for the blueprints. Otherwise, they could try doing some back-engineering and determine parameters from dynamic analysis. Today’s smartphone capabilities make these projects relatively easy. I recommend students using an app from Technische Universität Kaiserslautern (now https://rptu.de/) called iDynamics. It is a very effective tool for education! This app allows using your phone to measure vibrations, determine frequencies, damping ratios and transferring data for postprocessing on your computer (e.g., in Matlab). I use it myself in the classroom to measure frequencies of educational models. Last year students have used it to analyze bridge dynamics (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5. Steel bridge and its model in FEM software; students jumping to induce vibrations; smartphone to monitor vibrations; “iDynamics” app interface
They managed to get the blueprints as well, which allowed modeling the structure in FEM software and comparing analysis results with real life measurements. It allows understanding design process and structural parameters’ influence on dynamic behavior. I appreciate this type of projects because it has real “scale”. It is not an academic problem with perfect conditions. Field trips help students visualise concepts they learn in the classroom, and fosters their creativity as they think about ways to apply course material to the world around them. My wish is that students would become more familiar with their city, learn about actual designs or even have an opportunity to talk to the actual designers and manufacturers from the civil engineering industry.
“Pasco” kit is a commercial science education tool (https://www.pasco.com/products/labapparatus/structures). I have no affiliation with this company (there might be other similar/better products). Just so happens that one department in our university had it and kindly allowed us to use it. So far, I am very happy about it – it allows students to concentrate on the analysis of the results, rather than actual construction of the model (that part goes really quickly). Last year a group of three students made an experiment with Pasco, modeled it in Autodesk Robot and wrote FEM code in Matlab to verify the results (Fig. 4). From my point of view, this was very successful project, as students learned multiple computational techniques and could compare and verify their results. I would say this type of project suits very well the students who are into analytical academic thinking and programing. Depending on individual student capabilities, the details and qualitative analysis of these projects can reach master study level and attract students to continue their studies after bachelor graduation.
Fig. 4. Students working with “Pasco” kit in the laboratory. EFM software model of the same structure; Matlab model; comparison of vibrations with different dampers.
To complete these projects successfully, students need quite a lot of guidance from the lecturer. Firstly, they need to find an idea that motivates them. Dynamics subject is new to them, thus they have little knowledge of the objectives they could focus on. I try to give them several sources of inspiration – interesting internet content, cases of structural failures, attractive structures from Vilnius, examples of other student projects etc. We usually have several iterations of discussions, until they decide witch project form they prefer and what topic they are interested in (e.g. earthquake engineering, TMDs in high-rise buildings, bridge dynamics).
Secondly, the process of project implementation should be structured and guided. Deadlines should be drawn and respected; otherwise, students tend to postpone their work, which leads to a stressful end of semester. We do regular meetings, where students present their progress and next steps. In the beginning, they need more help, as there is no formal “assignment”. This requires good mentoring skills. Lecturer must not dictate or command, but rather guide, give hints and keep up student motivation. For example, I would share some vague ideas, of what would be possible to do, but would not specify particular methods. When students advance in the project, I would help more with particular details, but I should not overcome their initiatives even if I find them doubtful. Students must take responsibility for their project.
Practically this type of mentoring requires modern educational technologies and blended learning methods. On campus, we meet to discuss, visit laboratories and Vilnius Tech maker’s spaces (Fig. 8). On-line we use Moodle for course management, ZOOM conferencing, but what I would like to distinguish is the Conceptboard application (Fig 6). It is an online collaboration platform, which works perfectly for our projects. It allows sharing various sources of media – pictures, drawings, sketches, text explanations. It is an infinite space and no formatting is required, students share their ideas in any form they like. In addition, they can see what other teams are up to – this acts as an external motivator to improve their own project.
In the global pandemic years, all these online tools were essential. Despite the lack of live lectures, students were able to collaborate in small groups of 2-3 and make their projects at home or even their parent’s garage (Fig. 7). Starting the pandemic, this entire course was adapted to the flipped classroom approach. It turned out to be favorable method even with pandemic over. Now full course material is on Moodle platform (lecture notes, videos, software tutorials etc.) for students to reach at any time. This facilitates creative project approach as well. It allows students finding specific content for their project, which might be outside the regular course workflow.
Fig. 6. Five groups of students share their project sketches, photos and comments in the Conceptboard online collaboration app
Fig. 7. In 2021 students presented their project via Zoom – out of their workshop in a garage!
These study projects are naturally interdisciplinary. They require multiple skills and involve knowledge from various study disciplines. To complete the project students would need to gather data, consult lecturers from other departments, learn specific skills:
• Real structure analysis requires finding project designer and receiving blueprints (Fig. 5). Students would consult multiple lecturers, search internet to find architects/designers and ask them for the basic structural data (dimensions, cross sections, materials used etc.).
• Students modeling a bridge with Pasco kit (Fig. 9a) consulted bridge engineering department. They had to adjust their model to be more representative of a real bridge, which meant finding real structure’s weight, stiffness, vibration periods etc.
• Digital modeling projects (Fig. 4) requires skills of FEM modeling, therefore students might need to consult structural mechanics department to help with writing correct codes.
• DIY projects involve multiple skills, which usually are out of direct scope of study subjects. Nevertheless these self-thought skills are embraced in our university – students are encouraged to use dedicated makers’ spaces in “Linkmenų fabrikas” (Fig. 8) and consult electronics, additive manufacturing and other technicians.
Fig. 8. Electronics and steel workshops in VILNIUS TECH Linkmenų fabrikas (https://vilniustech.lt/linkmenufabrikas/creators/workshops/104273?lang=2); students working on a dynamic model of a multistory building
These projects are challenging for students. It takes time to build, analyze, do the math, make a report etc. Generally, project completion takes more time than studying for the regular exam. However, growing number of students still prefer this method, because it is more engaging and rewarding. Inevitably, some students complain at mid-term about the amount of work they need to do in the project etc., but in the end, they never regret taking this path. Each year I receive very good feedback from students. Here are two characteristic evaluations of my students (translated from Lithuanian):
I think it is a very good approach because the information we learn remains in our memory for longer (we will definitely remember our experiments for a long time); we also learned new software and improved at the ones we already knew; furthermore it is very interesting to analyze and observe how real life models differ from the digital ones.
In my opinion, it is a great alternative for the exam. Maybe we did not learn all the equations of dynamics, but we acquired much more information about external frequency actions on the structure, how it transfers through the entire structure. While making the project we found out quite a bit about resonance and buckling. We improved Robot software skills. In the end, making the experiments and seeing how it works in real life is much more attractive than just learning the theory.
Fostering creativity is a key to the contemporary student oriented education. Open type project assignments allow students demonstrating their personal skills and following individualised learning path. To summarize I can distinguish these main benefits of my teaching method:
1. Project diversity fosters student oriented learning and highlights individual talents
2. Projects allow engagement in the subject, which generally results in better grades
3. Advanced-level students can personalise their studies and find motivation to achieve even deeper knowledge
4. For less academically engaged students, hands-on DIY projects might be the only way to pass a difficult study subject
5. Spending time in working groups strengthen student social skills
6. Projects save time in the exam session, as students have one exam less to take
7. Engaged curiosity motivates students to learn new skills beyond study course scope: coding, 3D printing, new software or even video making (Fig. 9)!
8. Studying peculiar structural dynamic behavior increases student interest in civil engineering field, motivates them for master studies
9. Interdisciplinary and cross-department projects involve students in the university community thus increasing their overall satisfaction with studies
The framework of this project-based teaching is readily exportable to other study courses. Due to its empirical nature it is particularly suitable for engineering studies, where students tend to like practical assignments.
Fig. 9. Student project videos