Antique tractor gets students’ gears turning

November 28, 2018

Heads turned and a few students stopped and stared as a farm tractor growled its way up the campus roadway behind Krieger Hall, then sputtered to a stop in front of Merrick Barn.

“Um, now what?” asked driver Tatiana Pereira, laughing a little as she stepped on the clutch and tried unsuccessfully to turn over the engine of the 1947 red-and-white Ford tractor. Four classmates, who had trotted alongside the vintage vehicle on its short journey, began to strategize and tinker. Ten minutes later, the tractor rumbled back to a parking spot behind the building.

It was all in a day’s work for Pereira, a sophomore biomedical engineering major, and her classmates in Tractor Class, a new course offered through the Whiting School of Engineering this fall. Officially the course is called Reverse Engineering and Diagnostics, but no one except the registrar calls it that.

The brainchild of Stephen Belkoff, a mechanical engineering professor, the three-credit class helps students learn hands-on engineering problem solving, tasking them with taking apart and reassembling two donated, 71-year-old Ford N-series farm tractors in an effort to get the motors humming again.

Because the machines are so old, Belkoff’s students must rely on their developing engineering skills to ascertain which parts are missing, which ones still work, and what needs repair. Belkoff also routinely sabotages the tractors’ systems, challenging the students to figure out and fix whatever is wrong using logic and fundamental principles of physics and thermodynamics.

The old tractors are the perfect teaching tool, he says—they were so well designed that many are still working seven decades after production. They also provide good examples of hydraulic, fuel, drivetrain, ignition, and steering systems—systems most present-day students don’t have much, or any, experience with.

“Years ago, most students would arrive in engineering school with some experience mucking around with car engines or repairing their bikes or the family lawnmower,” Belkoff says. “That’s not true anymore. You don’t need to know how to repair a lawnmower to be a good mechanical engineer, of course, but I contend it sure makes design easier when you have a working knowledge of gears, valves, and pulleys, and how things are assembled.”

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