Motion system trends issue: Today’s cutting-edge technologies + more

In this issue:

04 Motion showcases today’s cutting-edge technologies

Industry growth predicted through 2020

Trends in clutches and brakes leverage software and customization.

Smaller, lighter options cover more applications


Inside the head of an engineer

By Lee Teschler

MANY engineers have not-so-fond memories of slogging through math and physics courses at college for two years before seeing their first real engineering courses. Fortunately, this situation is starting to change. Consider what’s going on at Northwestern University. All freshman engineers there take a course called Design, Thinking, and Communications, which is basically a hands-on introduction to how engineers have to think about design. The coursework includes coming up with and delivering a design for actual customers.

Readers might wonder, as I did, how the heck kids straight out of high school can be expected to design much of anything. The secret is what might be called on-the-fly coaching on engineering principles. “There is a lot of teaching about how to solve problems specific to their projects, but they don’t learn details about topics like bending moments or stress. That comes in other classes later on,” said Northwestern University Segal Design Institute Co-director Bruce Ankenman. “A group of them might meet for an hour with a mechanical engineering professor who walks them through calculations for something they’ve got to solve. The teaching is just-in-time as opposed to exposing them to all the things they could possibly run into.”

One interesting aspect of the Northwestern course is that some of its instructors aren’t engineering professors. “It used to be that freshman engineers would have English composition classes where they might write about Shakespeare. Twenty years ago we invited people teaching the composition class into the design class. Instead of teaching composition, they now teach communication more broadly in the context of a real design project,” said Ankenman. “Writing professors now oversee things like the writing of progress reports, user testing guides, and a report where students talk about their initial design ideas and how users responded to them.”

Another noteworthy facet of the course is its emphasis on real-world situations. “The first quarter of the course always focuses on problems involving people with disabilities. One of the big things about design is learning to be empathetic with people who are not like you. We felt people with disabilities would be unlike most engineering students,” said Ankenman. “It also exposes students to thinking about different ways they can use their engineering skills.”

As you might suspect, a lot of student design projects aren’t particularly successful. So you could wonder how kids earn a grade in this course. “They create a big final report that gets graded like any lab report. There’s also a team process grade decided on by the two faculty advisors. And there are many assignments such as creating (CAD) graphics or presenting mock ups.Lee Teschler They get criticism and feedback on this work,” said Ankenman. “Most people taking this course get some flavor of an A or a B, or occasionally a C where somebody didn’t do a lot. To flunk this course, you would have to really work at it.”

Perhaps the best aspect of Northwestern’s course is the motivation it gives engineering students for hanging tough through the next four years. “It’s designed to give kids an understanding of what engineering is about early on, before they’ve gotten discouraged by the amount of work involved,” said Ankenman. “They come out knowing that when they’ve finished their degree, they can go out and do great things.”

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