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Visualization and Computation for 21st Century Junior Engineers

Amy L. Throckmorton, Ph.D.
Department of Mechanical Engineering
School of Engineering


Background and Motivation

A paradigm shift is underway within our academic and educational communities challenging the prevailing philosophy that governs how educators effectively teach the engineers and leaders of tomorrow – a shift from traditional didactic teaching (instructor-centered) to learning-centered teaching (student-centered). Globally we have reached a new technological era where information is at our fingertips with a simple click of the mouse or press of a button; as a result, didactic teaching in which instructors act as gate keepers to fundamental knowledge is no longer the most effective way to educate our young adults. The role of the instructor has changed to one of a facilitator or catalyst to promote student learning through specifically targeted activities.

Classroom techniques that support active learning have become more popular with the use of technology. The use of technology in the classroom provides the means by which a student-centered model of education can be fostered with focus directly on the student while retaining full access to the didactic process. For example, studies have shown that visual learning techniques, such as the use of graphics, images, and animations, enable and enhance student learning. Such techniques allow engineers to communicate effectively about more complex projects and concepts. Many instructors have course web-sites either through their university systems or a web-site that they have independently created. This web-site or instructor-student interface may have a range of capabilities, including discussion boards, information storage, electronic exams, feedback surveys, and anonymous email for instructor feedback. Lectures can be recorded and now uploaded to these course web-sites for students to review when preparing for exams or completing assignments. Powerpoint slides can also be uploaded to this website in support of student learning. Instructors are increasingly using podcasting, a form of audio broadcasting using the internet, to bring the global world into the classroom. The use of Tablet PCs for classroom discussions and handheld electronic responders is on the rise to enhance student participation, interest, and active learning, especially in large class settings.

Another technique that is gaining widespread acceptance in engineering classrooms involves the use of screencasts (video screen captures) for novice software users and programmers. A screencast is a digital recording of a sequence of activities on a computer screen and may also have voice narration. These video tutorials provide the support structures or scaffolding from which the students are able to achieve the next stage of their development and master the software being studied. New products, such as Camtasia Studio (Techsmith Corporation), allow for user-friendly screencast generation with web-based delivery in a multitude of formats, such as Windows Media Play, AVI, and Macromedia Flash. These video tutorials can be viewed as streaming or downloaded for later viewing; students benefit even more by having this continuous mobile access due to the downloading capabilities.

A number of the aforementioned “teaching with technology” techniques have been employed in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Virginia Commonwealth University. We have a rigorous undergraduate curriculum with mathematically intensive coursework in Dynamics and Kinematics, Thermodynamics, Fluid Mechanics, Numerical Methods, Electric Circuits, and many more classes. These courses require the knowledge and use of several engineering software packages. In support of the curriculum, one course, EGRM 215: Engineering Visualization and Computation, introduces the fundamental concepts in the creation and interpretation of graphical data and three-dimensional solid modeling assemblies for manufacturing using Excel, Matlab, and SolidWorks software. The course also seeks to demonstrate the integration and application of these computational and graphical tools in the design of efficient, robust, and innovative engineering systems.

During the spring semester of 2008, the course had 117 undergraduate students and was the largest class in the School of Engineering. Two lectures per week with 50 minute time periods were held in an auditorium and students attended a computer laboratory session once per week for 1 hour and 50 minutes. The computer sessions involved hands-on software learning with provided exercises having step-by-step instructions and then independent exercises. The instructor and teaching assistant continuously circulated the computer lab to assist students. Early on, it was thought that video tutorials of executable commands for the software would add tremendous value and enhance student learning. It was also speculated that directly linking classroom activities to real-world engineering through industrial speakers would also improve learning, reinforce course objectives, and broaden their perspective of why this material is important to their becoming successful and productive professional engineers.


This study broadly sought to motivate junior engineers to nurture their intellectual curiosity, to be professionals, and to ultimately attain rewarding careers in engineering. Applying a learning-centered approach to the EGRM 215 course, these broad objectives were achieved through the integration of the following instructional aims: 1) design and construct narrated, easily referenced and accessible, video tutorials which describe and illustrate specific commands and tasks for the course software, and 2) directly link the course assignments and activities to real-life, day-to-day engineering practices with expert guest speakers from industry. The implementation of these aims improved classroom instruction, enhanced student engagement, and developed a new methodology for teaching and learning both for the students and instructor.

Materials and Methods

To achieve the project objectives, research was initially performed to assess the availability of such video tutorials for Excel, Matlab, and SolidWorks. These findings served as the foundation from which the course tutorials were created. As part of this research effort, discussions began with students to gage their interest in having such tutorials available, and a knowledge survey was given at the beginning of semester to assess their experience with the course software. Assistance in the creation of the narrated video tutorials was initially provided by Eddie McCumiskey, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering and teaching assistant for the course, and later by Jeremy Bennetch, an undergraduate student taking the course. Using the Camtasia Studio 5.0 software, six video tutorials were created during the initial phase of development. These tutorials covered various aspects in the use of the SolidWorks program for computer-aided design. Later in the semester, five more tutorials were produced targeting the Matlab software and programming techniques.

Conversations were initiated with colleagues and researchers at surrounding institutions to determine the most suitable classroom speakers for freshmen engineering students; four speakers were selected, each with his area of expertise and unique skills set. An assessment of the speakers and video tutorial use was performed through periodic informal discussions with students, tracking the number of “hits” with respect to each video on Blackboard, feedback from the three in-class course evaluations, and the demonstration of software proficiency through the class design project.

Results and Discussion

Initial Research Findings: A knowledge survey was given to the students on the first day of class. The knowledge survey indicated that, prior to this class, the vast majority of responding students had used the spreadsheet program Excel, nearly half of the students had used the matrix algebra program Matlab, and a majority had used the computer-aided design software SolidWorks or comparable program. Thus, the course content focused on refining skills in the use of Matlab and SolidWorks.

A review of all available literature and commercial information was performed through library and online avenues to identify if video tutorials already existed for Excel, Matlab, and SolidWorks. The Video Professor (www.VideoProfessor.com) series was quickly found for Microsoft Excel software; video clips that illustrated certain tasks using Matlab were also located. In addition, the SolidProfessor software was found for video tutorials using SolidWorks. We considered the use of this software in the computer laboratories in the School of Engineering, but the cost would have been thousands of dollars per year. One package of the SolidWorks Professional Bundle software (www.solidprofessor.com) was purchased and made available to students during office hours on an individual basis. The Matlab video clips were shared in class lectures, but did not cover the breadth of programming skills needed for the course. Thus, we focused on creating SolidWorks video tutorials for all students to have access via Blackboard and Matlab video tutorials that would fill in the gaps for the students.

During the search for commercial software, a number of educational videos were identified to aid with bridging the gap between knowledge learned in the course and professional applicability in the future. Four educational videos were purchased, as listed in Table 1, and were shared during course lectures to complement industrial speakers and reinforce course content.  Positive feedback from informal discussions with students was received for these videos.

Table 1: Educational Videos Purchased for Course Lectures

“CAD – Creative Design”. Produced by Classroom Media, Morris Plains, NJ. This video explores the applications of CAD software in the jewelry industry from 2D to 3D models for prototypes and final product generation.

“Advanced 3D Interactive Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) Development Concepts and Cases” Produced by CIMware USA, Inc., Ridgewood, NJ. This video presents advanced computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) techniques to consider during the design process.

“CAM – Revolutionary Design”. Produced by Classroom Media, Morris Plains, NJ. This video details three case studies providing insight into the commercial world through just-in-time manufacturing, rapid prototyping, and concurrent engineering processes.

“Fundamental Manufacturing Process: Rapid Prototyping”. Produced by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). This video introduces rapid prototyping technologies and systems, including sterelithography, selective laser sintering, fused deposition modeling, ultrasonic consolidation, ink- and multi-jet systems, and vulcanized tooling.

Video Tutorials:

Using the Camtasia software, the course-specific video tutorials were designed and created. The first six tutorials revolved around the use of the SolidWorks since this software was being taught at the time. The final five tutorials focused on programming using Matlab. Figure 1 illustrates the Camtasia software domain where the video tutorials were produced. Table 2 details the titles of the video tutorials and the target software. As with any software, there is a learning-curve. Once experience was gained using the Camtasia software, course-specific video tutorials of 5 minutes or less could be generated in only a few hours; more time was devoted to the design and organization of the tutorial.

The total number of “hits” on Blackboard for the video tutorials exceeded 610 with an average of 150 per computer laboratory session. Each laboratory session or workshop contained approximately 27 students, and 4 workshop sessions were taught. Students came to me after class and began to request the creation of new tutorials covering certain software skills, after they had reviewed the first video. This confirmed interest, and we focused the content of the next set of tutorials to address student requests. Students also volunteered to design and produce video tutorials for their classmates who did not have the same level of SolidWorks experience. All input was factored into the tutorial design and production.

Table 2: Video Tutorials Created for EGRM 215 Course

Targeted Software

Tutorial Title


Introduction and Sketching




Fillet and Chamfer








Introduction and Basics




If Conditional Statements


While Loop


User Defined Functions

SolidWorks Tutorial: Loft - Boss/Base

SolidWorks Tutorial: Revolve - Boss/Base

Matlab Tutorial: Programming For-Loops

Expert Speakers:

To bridge the gap between course content and the working world, industrial representatives and expert speakers were invited into the classroom. They sought to directly relate the course assignments and activities to real-life, day-to-day engineering practice. Core topics included: 1) demonstrations of the wide range of capabilities of SolidWorks, 2) computer-aided design using SolidWorks and the manufacturing interface, and 3) professionalism. An expert consultant with over 35 years of experience using SolidWorks spoke to the class and demonstrated a top-down design approach showing the range of software capabilities. The president of a local manufacturing company with 32 years of experience in prototype development and manufacturing delivered a presentation on computer-aided manufacturing and the steps necessary beyond SolidWorks to produce a product. In addition, the Director of Operations and the Director of Engineering for Wyeth Pharmaceuticals shared their vast professional experience, talked about a day in the life of a junior engineer, and defined professionalism. Feedback from course evaluations and verbal exchanges were very positive.


Based on a survey at the end of the course, the vast majority of students agreed that the course activities had increased their fundamental knowledge in the use of the Matlab and SolidWorks. Dozens of students highlighted “professionalism” as a new concept that now resonated with them as a result of this course. The students also exceeded expectations by virtually building a sports car based on the provided part files and assembly information. The outcomes of this small grant serve as a strong foundation from which to derive new video tutorials for future classes, to incorporate more technology into the classroom setting, such as handheld responders for lectures, and to seek more industry speakers in order to complement course content and to support their becoming successful and productive professional engineers.

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Last modified: June 20, 2013
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