From Problem Sets to Problem Solving

The Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) has witnessed a transformation over the past four-and-a-half years. The addition of interactive, design-centered assignments is creating educational experiences that are preparing Penn’s mechanical engineers for the problems they will solve in industry and research.
For generations, freshmen in mechanical engineering programs across the country have confronted the challenge of wading through a curriculum front-loaded with math, physics, and chemistry, slowly working their way toward the reward of actually applying what they’re learning to the design and building of solutions to real-world engineering problems. Mark Yim, Gabel Family Term Junior Professor, and MEAM Undergraduate
Curriculum Chair, describes this previous, passive model of learning in which students were presented with information and given equations to reach a single right answer, devoid of any context beyond the classroom. “Students don’t necessarily work that way anymore. They want to see sooner how the theories they’re learning apply to the real world.” So MEAM faculty began implementing a practice integrated curriculum, designed to engage freshmen through seniors in applying theories which might otherwise be left on the pages of a textbook.

In a standard curriculum, it doesn’t get more basic than 101. But MEAM 101, Introduction to Mechanical Design, breaks that mold by taking students through the entire mechanical design process from need-finding and brainstorming, to mock-up prototyping, 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) simulations, final prototyping, iteration and analysis. “It’s one of my favorite classes to teach, because it’s so creative and hands-on,” says lecturer Jonathan Fiene, who, as Director of Laboratory Programs, oversees the lion’s share of lab courses.Working in teams, students dissect “vintage” devices, such as 35-mm cameras and floppy-disk drives, use industry-standard software to create 3-D CAD models of each part, and then reassemble the (hopefully still functional) devices. “A lot of the students get so into the project that they end up learning more about the software, the tools, and the design process than we could possibly teach them in a single semester,” says Fiene, highlighting a key goal of the curriculum revisions: students are learning how to learn on their own, and seeking the tools they will need to independently solve the problems they approach.

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “From Problem Sets to Problem Solving,” by Catherine Von Elm.

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Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics department website

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