Creative experimentation in teaching methods was the concept behind the Vision Fund project of Alan Levy and Hiroshi Higuchi, professors of mechanical, aerospace, and manufacturing engineering in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science. They believed there was a fundamental flaw in the way SUs mechanics-based engineering students were taught engineering science. With a typical course containing anywhere from 40 to 120 students in a large lecture format with 3 hours per week of lecture and 55 minutes of recitation, the professors found a significant portion of the class "intellectually absent" from discussion, participation, or involvement of almost any kind. The non-stimulating environment also may have been the reason why so many students were physically absent from class.
Higuchi and Levy decided to change the way these students were taught by developing and integrating a virtual laboratory into mechanics-based engineering curricula. The idea was to create interactive computer simulations that would put engineering problems and physical processes on a web site (www.mame.syr.edu/simmech/) or CD-ROM, allowing students to interactively explore associated phenomena. "We proposed to replace the traditional recitation with an enriching, structured experience," Levy says. "We felt students needed to see a connection to something tangible, and this was a way to do it. Ultimately, students will meet in a simulation laboratory and, under the guidance of an instructor, explore the physical meaning of problems and processes through virtual experiments. The lab component is intended to run parallel with the lecture."
The professors began by building a "virtual machine shop" complete with computers, software, and printers, and staffed by graduate and undergraduate students, dedicated to designing web sites and developing interactive simulations for instructional use. The students produced simulation/visualization applications, either on the web or on CD-ROMs, and integrated them into select courses. "We envisioned the facility functioning like a machine shop, taking requests from faculty for large and small projects that ultimately are put on the web or CDs," Levy says.
The shop will also produce specially designed simulations for high school and middle school students in the Syracuse City School District based on ideas provided by their teachers. Levy says an extension of this project requires external funds currently being sought from NASA and the National Science Foundation to develop a fully operational simulation design shop and course.
Eric Hagopian 00, a mechanical engineering major, joined the project in its infancy and used it as his honors thesis. "As a program writer, I was exposed to new computing languages and made creative use of the Internet," he says. "Learning is becoming more and more independent and Internet-related. Having this kind of project complements the student demand for learning. I now have a better idea of what programming entails."