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Author: Yeh-Liang Hsu, Chin-Yu Yo (2002-08-21); recommended: Yeh-Liang Hsu (2004-06-08).
Note: This is the condensed version of the same paper published in Journal of the Chinese Society of Mechanical Engineers, Vol. 24, No. 5, October, 2003, p.517~524.

The problem-solving approach for the fundamental hands-on practice courses in mechanical engineering education

Abstract

Hands-on practice has been an essential element in mechanical engineering education. In mechanical engineering curriculum of the universities in Taiwan, several fundamental courses, such as Workshop Practice and Mechanical Engineering Experiments, specifically aim at providing students with hands-on experience. The resource required by these courses is very large, but students did not highly value these courses. In this study, we changed the approach of these courses from “skill-practicing” into “enhancing students’ problem solving ability through hands-on activities.” This transformation was nothing drastic. The only thing added in the courses is a problem to be solved, which changes the mindset of students when they do the hands-on practice. The results of a questionnaire administered over three years show that this transformation effectively raises students’ interests and value ratings towards these courses.

Keywords: mechanical engineering education, hand-on practice, problem solving

1.     Introduction

Mechanical engineering departments in universities are developing hands-on programs to provide students with technical and problem-solving skills they need as professionals. Hands-on approach is often used in the first-year introductory courses [Dally and Zhang, 1993; Ambrose and Amon, 1997]. Hands-on experience is also emphasized in many mechanical design courses [Miri and Fu, 1993; Finaish, 1997].

In the mechanical engineering curriculum of the universities in Taiwan, several fundamental courses, such as Workshop Practice and Mechanical Engineering Experiments, specifically aim at providing students hands-on experience. These fundamental hands-on practice courses require much more resource than lecture type courses, but it seems students did not highly value these courses.

We did a resource comparison to confirm this observation. According to our study, the resource required to support one student in Workshop Practice in our department is 4.3 times (in terms of monetary value) that required by a lecture type course, e.g., Engineering Mathematics. The resource required by Mechanical Engineering Experiments is 3.0 times that required by a lecture type course.

We also designed a questionnaire to investigate students’ attitude and value ratings on all required courses. There are two parts in the questionnaire. The first part asks the students to choose 5 out of the total 24 required courses that they think are most interesting and least interesting, the easiest and the hardest, they spent the least time and the most time. The second part of the questionnaire asks students to rate the value of the 24 required courses on a 1 to 5 scale, which represent “not valuable,” “less valuable,” “average,” “valuable,” “very valuable,” respectively.

Table 1 shows the results of the students of class of 2001 at the end of the junior year when they have finished all 24 required courses. We received 122 valid questionnaires out of the total 138 questionnaires distributed, for a responding rate of 88%. The percentage in each column represents the percentage of students who chose the course as one of the top 5 most interesting and least interesting, the easiest and the hardest, and they spent the least time and the most time, out of the total 24 required courses. The ranks are also listed after the percentages. Table 1 also lists the value ratings of all required courses by the students. For example, Engineering Mathematics had the highest value rating in this questionnaire, though not many students feel Engineering Mathematics is the most interesting (11th).

Table 1. Questionnaire result of class 2001

Item

Courses

Most interesting

Least interesting

Easiest

Hardest

Least time spent

Most time spent

Value rating

Engineering Mathematics

21.31%

11

13.93%

17

9.02%

19

33.61%

6

2.46%

24

46.72%

1

4.24

1

Mechanical Drawing

46.72%

2

4.92%

24

35.25%

5

5.74%

15

24.59%

8

14.75%

13

4.13

2

Mechanical Design

48.36%

1

6.56%

23

20.49%

10

3.28%

19

10.66%

17

23.77%

11

4.06

3

Intro. Electric Circuits & Electronics

37.70%

3

13.93%

16

13.93%

12

29.51%

8

8.20%

20

32.79%

6

4.03

4

Computer Programming

28.69%

6

18.03%

11

12.30%

14

31.15%

7

13.11%

13

18.85%

12

4.01

5

Calculus

9.84%

20

17.21%

13

33.61%

6

10.66%

13

19.67%

9

26.23%

9

3.91

6

Automatic Control

32.79%

4

22.95%

9

9.02%

18

61.48%

2

15.57%

11

36.89%

4

3.86

7

Engineering Graphics

31.15%

5

9.84%

20

38.52%

4

2.46%

21

28.23%

7

12.30%

14

3.77

8

Thermal Dynamics

24.59%

8

27.87%

6

11.48%

15

25.41%

10

5.74%

22

39.34%

3

3.65

9

Dynamics

11.48%

18

30.33%

4

6.56%

21

55.74%

3

4.10%

23

46.72%

2

3.64

10

Mechanics of Material

12.30%

17

23.77%

8

4.92%

23

34.43%

5

9.84%

19

28.69%

8

3.63

11

Information Science Lab.

24.59%

9

7.38%

22

52.46%

1

0.82%

24

48.36%

2

3.28%

23

3.61

12

Mechanisms

10.66%

19

18.85%

10

3.28%

24

13.11%

12

12.30%

14

4.92%

21

3.60

13

Fluid Mechanics

18.03%

14

50.82%

1

5.74%

22

62.30%

1

11.48%

15

36.07%

5

3.57

14

Engineering Materials

13.11%

16

9.02%

21

17.21%

11

1.64%

22

13.93%

12

4.10%

22

3.55

15

Heat Transfer

18.03%

13

35.25%

3

9.84%

16

38.52%

4

10.66%

16

24.59%

10

3.53

16

Workshop Practice

25.41%

7

15.57%

15

44.26%

2

7.38%

14

48.36%

1

5.74%

18

3.49

17

Intro. Info. Science

21.31%

10

13.11%

19

44.26%

3

3.28%

18

38.52%

4

5.74%

19

3.47

18

Mechanical Eng. Exp.

18.03%

12

17.21%

12

31.97%

7

0.82%

23

36.89%

5

5.74%

20

3.47

19

Statics

4.92%

24

28.69%

5

9.84%

17

27.87%

9

8.20%

21

28.69%

7

3.43

20

General Physics

4.92%

23

13.93%

18

13.93%

13

4.92%

16

10.66%

18

3.28%

24

3.30

21

Manufacturing Processes

9.02%

22

40.16%

2

7.38%

20

21.31%

11

16.39%

10

9.02%

15

3.15

22

Physics Experiment

9.02%

21

16.39%

14

22.95%

9

4.10%

17

38.52%

3

6.56%

17

3.11

23

Introduction to Engineering

13.11%

15

25.41%

7

25.41%

8

2.46%

20

31.97%

6

6.56%

16

3.00

24

Hands-on practice education is such an essential element in the mechanical engineering education that the department invests a lot of resource in these courses, especially in Workshop Practice and Mechanical Engineering Experiments. While students felt relatively less interested in these two courses (ranked 7th and 12th), they didn’t seem to be very serious about these two courses either. A major portion of students felt that these two courses are easy (2nd, and 7th) and many students spent little time on them (1st and 5th). They also felt that these two courses were not valuable to them (17th and 19th).

With this study, we felt that the fundamental pedagogical approach of these fundamental hands-on practice courses in our department needed to be changed. In these courses, students were asked to follow given instructions step by step to practice operating manufacturing machines or experimental apparatus. Students practiced the same given procedures on the same given problems. Obviously such “skill-practicing” type hands-on experience did not excite students.

2.     The “problem-solving” model for the fundamental hand-on practice courses

It is not feasible to significantly cut down the cost of these hands-on practice courses since all investment, the lab space and the equipments are already there. Therefore, how do we fully use our current facilities, make minimal changes to the courses, but raise the “value” of the hands-on practice courses?

The high value rating of Mechanical Drawing in the survey results interested us. This course has been taught in a so-called “problem-solving” format. All students are told in the beginning of the semester to form teams of 3, and each team should pick a real mechanical system with fair complexity and generate professionally acceptable mechanical drawings as their final projects. During the semester, general mechanical drawing topics are covered. These topics are not taught only as “skills” to be practiced over and over using standard examples from textbooks, instead, these topics are provided as tools that help the students to do their final project. During the semester, students are constantly asked to reflect on how to apply what they have learned to their final projects. As shown in Table 1, Mechanical Drawing was rated the 2nd most interesting course. In the mean time, being one of the hands-on practice course, its value rating was ranked 2nd among all 24 required courses in our department.

The Mechanical Design course was also noticed. This course was reformed in the 1995~1996 academic year and was transformed from a lecture type course to a hands-on, problem-solving type of course [Hsu, 1998]. Currently 12 subjects are arranged in this one-year course, and there is a design project after each subject is taught. The design projects are small process-oriented projects rather than large product-oriented projects. They are intended to be a design problem to be solved, rather than a product to be built. The purpose of the design projects is to let the students experience design, so that they can learn things that they do not learn in the lectures, textbooks, and homework sets. As shown in Table 1, Mechanical Design was considered the most interesting course by the students, and was ranked 3rd in the value rating.

With these observations, we changed Mechanical Engineering Experiments and Workshop Practice into this “problem-solving” format in the following year. Workshop practice was changed into a format very similar to that of Mechanical Drawing. Transforming the hands-on practice courses from the “skill-practicing” format to the “problem-solving” format was nothing drastic. In Workshop Practice, the course materials and teaching facilities did not need any major changes. The only thing added in the course was a problem to be solved. In this case a product will be made using the machines in the workshop as the final project of students. This simple change alters the mindset of students when they do the hands-on practice. Students realized that the purpose is not only to get familiar with the operational skills, but also to be able to use the skills to make the product.

The Mechanical Engineering Experiments course used a slightly different approach. Instead of using a final project as the problem to be solved, we changed all experiments from “step-by-step” experiments to “open ended” experiments. For example, one session of the course is on measurement and control. There is one experiment each week. Before the experiment, fundamental knowledge is lectured, and technical skills on how to use the experimental apparatus are also taught. Then the experiment itself is given as a problem to be solved, for example, “to control the liquid in the tube at a fixed level,” or “to control the temperature of a chamber at a given temperature.” There is no step-by-step procedure for students to follow. Students have to figure out how to solve the problem using the knowledge and operational skills they just learned.

We conducted surveys again on class of 2002 and 2003 students, using the same questionnaire described in Section 1, to investigate the difference of their attitude and value ratings before and after the reform of the fundamental hands-on practice courses. Class of 2002 took Mechanical Engineering Experiments in the problem-solving format. They took Workshop Practice in their freshman year, when the course was still taught in the skill-practicing format. We received 106 valid questionnaires out of the total 110 questionnaires distributed with a response rate of 96%. Table 2 shows the results of class of 2002. Only the results of related courses are shown here. Class of 2003 took both Mechanical Engineering Experiments and Workshop Practice in the problem-solving format. We received 102 valid questionnaires out of the total 105 questionnaires distributed (responds rate 97%). Table 3 shows the results of class of 2003.

Table 2. Result of class 2002

Item

Courses

Most interesting

Least interesting

Easiest

Hardest

Least time spent

Most time spent

Value rating

Engineering mathematics

27.36%

9

10.38%

19

6.60%

18

38.68%

5

1.89%

24

50.94%

3

4.21

1

Mechanical Design

65.09%

1

7.55%

22

11.32%

15

4.72%

19

5.66%

19

50.94%

2

4.19

2

Mechanical Drawing

50.00%

2

9.43%

20

37.74%

5

4.72%

17

19.81%

11

18.87%

14

3.95

5

Mechanical Eng. Exp.

29.25%

7

4.72%

24

26.42%

9

6.60%

14

19.81%

10

22.64%

11

3.79

7

Workshop practice

20.75%

10

30.19%

5

33.96%

6

5.66%

15

45.28%

3

2.83%

19

3.43

15

Table 3. Result of class 2003

Item

Courses

Most interesting

Least interesting

Easiest

Hardest

Least time spent

Most time spent

Value rating

Engineering mathematics

29.41%

7

6.86%

18

11.76%

12

30.39%

8

0.98%

23

68.63%

1

4.43

1

Mechanical design

51.96%

2

1.96%

24

11.76%

12

1.96%

18

1.96%

20

35.29%

6

4.33

2

Mechanical Engi. Exp.

53.92%

1

3.92%

23

42.16%

5

0.98%

21

36.27%

6

9.80%

15

4.19

3

Mechanic Drawing

43.14%

3

8.82%

17

29.41%

8

0.00%

22

12.75%

13

23.53%

10

4.14

4

Workshop Practice

38.24%

4

6.86%

18

45.10%

4

2.94%

16

37.25%

5

8.82%

16

3.87

8

Though professors’ styles and demands may vary from year to year, comparing the questionnaire results in three years, students’ responses on the 24 required courses are quite similar. The two courses that received major change in students’ responses are Mechanical Engineering Experiments and Workshop Practice. Engineering Mathematics receives the highest value rating in all three years and is therefore used as a basis for comparison. The value rating of the Mechanical Engineering Experiment rises from 81.8% of that of Engineering Mathematics (class of 2001, rank 12th) to 90.0% (class of 2002, rank 7th), to 93.5% (class of 2003, rank 3rd). Before the reform, the value rating of Workshop Practice was 82.3% of that of Engineering Mathematics (class of 2001, rank 17th) and 81.5% (class of 2002, rank 15th). After the reform, the value rating of the same course rises to 87.4% (class of 2003, rank 8).

Besides the significant raise in value ratings, more students chose Mechanical Engineering Experiments as one of their top 5 most interesting courses (from 12th to 7th to 1st), and very few students chose this course as one of their top 5 least interesting courses (from 12th to 24th and 23rd). Similarly, more students found Workshop Practice more interesting after the reform (now ranked 4th).

3.     Conclusions

Hands-on practice has been an essential element in mechanical engineering curriculum,.but hands-on practice alone does not excite students. The role of hands-on practice should be to provide fundamental tools to the students, so that they can solve their problems in a hands-on practical approach. By simply adding a problem to be solved into the hands-on practice courses, the students realize that the purpose is not only to get familiar with the operational skills, but also to be able to use the skills to solve the problems given to them. In our study, the impact of this simple transformation is significant. The results of a questionnaire administered over three years show that this transformation effectively raises students’ interests and value ratings towards these courses.

Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the support from the National Science Council and Ministry of Education, Taiwan, under grant number 89-2511-S-155-002-X3.

Reference

Ambrose, S.A. and Amon, C.H., “Systematic design of a first-year mechanical engineering course at Carnegie Mellon University,” Journal of Engineering Education, v 86, n 2, 1997, p 173-181.

Dally, J.W., and Zhang, G.M., “Freshman engineering design course,” Journal of Engineering Education, v 82, n 2, p 83-91.

Miri, S.M. and Fu, R.J., “Hands-on practical approach to teaching engineering design,” IEEE Transactions on Education, v 36, n 1, p 131-136.

Finaish, F., “Design and hands-on experiences for undergraduates: Case study on design, construction and testing of small aircraft models,” International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, v25, n2, 1997, p 118-136.

Hsu, Y. L., “Teaching Mechanical Design to a Large Class: A Report from Taiwan,” Journal of Engineering Education, v 87, n 1, 1998, p. 47~51.