We really want to present problems that are more engaging. We say, ‘Here is what we want to see at the end of the day, but we are not going to give you any exact procedures to get there.’
Design, analyze and simulate a roller coaster. That's a typical assignment in a dynamics class taught by Professor Andrew Sloboda, mechanical engineering, who believes that students learn best through hands-on problem solving. He expects some trial and error — and that's a good thing.
"We really want to present problems that are more engaging," says Sloboda. "We say, 'here is what we want to see at the end of the day, but we are not going to give you any exact procedures to get there.' This process forces deeper thinking."
An introductory dynamics course traditionally involves solving well-defined problems presented in a textbook. In Sloboda's more open-ended approach, he challenges students to solve an ambiguous, real-world problem, putting the focus on the process rather than simply finding the correct answer.
For the roller coaster project, teams of three students perform engineering calculations and input their design into simulation software. If students notice inconsistencies between their calculations and the computer model, they must figure out the causes and recalculate. Sloboda says this gives the students a sense of the issues engineers deal with in the workplace. "It is really good for them to see dynamics at work, and it gives them design practice," he says.
In addition to dynamics, Sloboda teaches solid mechanics, fluid mechanics, system dynamics and vibration courses. He has a special research interest in nonlinear dynamics, an area that is becoming increasingly important as systems get more complicated.
"I analyze mechanical systems with nonlinearities, where there is a disproportionate relationship between cause and effect for part of the system that can lead to unexpected behaviors," he says. "Nonlinearity has been studied for a long time in physics. In engineering, we try to come up with ways to work around it using tools we already have — or even figure out ways to take advantage of the disproportionality."
Posted Oct. 7, 2015