Guaranteed to Have a Ball

Fall 2008


“Every week there’s a brand new lab that’s never been thought of before.”
allison okamura

Bicycles, springs, billiards, ball throwers, wind tunnels, music, and lacrosse balls. Those may sound like unlikely components to an under- graduate engineering course, but that’s exactly what they are.

In the Department of Mechanical Engineering, a newly launched curriculum integrates hands-on lessons in physics and mechanical engineering to bring to life the underlying principles of mechanical engineering. The curriculum is divided into three year long components: Freshman Experiences in Mechanical Engineering I and II, Introduction to Mechanics I and II, and Mechanical Engineering Freshman Laboratory I and II.

In the Freshman Lab, toys are used to teach one-dimensional motion, bicycles in the study of forces, springs to illustrate the conservation of energy, and billiards to show the physics of collisions and momentum. Students must design ball throwers as a mid-semester design project, the wind tunnel is used to teach con- cepts of fluids, and music brings alive the com- plexity of wave theory.

“Every week there’s a brand new lab that’s never been thought of before,” says associate professor Allison Okamura, who teaches the course. The goal? To get engineering students engaged as quickly as possible, to retain a diverse group of students, and—fundamentally—to generate student interest in the field.

Planning and work for the new curriculum began in 2007, involving a committee of four professors: now-retired professor Bill Sharpe, professor Joseph Katz, former professor and former dean Ilene Busch-Vishniac, and assistant professor Lester Su, all in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Okamura was asked to develop the actual courses and, eventually, teach them.

We asked, what turns people off?” Okamura says. The professors learned that, to better capture the imagination of young engineering students, they would have to teach physics with an engineer’s perspective. “Science is the study of what is,” she explains. “Engineering is the study of what can be.”

So, instead of sending their newbie students off to the School of Arts and Sciences to enroll in introductory physics, the department now incorporates a more engineering influenced physics education into its own curriculum.

Hence the lacrosse balls. By first building one and then measuring the density of it, fresh- men discover how uncertainty plays a role in engineering. “Students must question how measurement uncertainties increase when applied to the things we build,” says Okamura. “Because they must make the ball and then measure it, they evaluate how the building of it may have introduced design or production flaws that result in measurement challenges.”

The new curriculum, which is funded in part by the department chair’s budget and the WSE Kenan Teachers Fund, aims to “instill in students, early on, a love of design and engineering,” Okamura says. “There’s no question that we’ll continue to refine the curriculum. As we get feedback from students,” she says, “we’ll keep improving the courses.”