Statics and dynamics by design:
EP professor co-authors two new textbooks
early three years worth of hard work resides in binders on Professor Mike Plesha’s desk. Paginated neatly in book form, they are partially finished manuscripts for two revolutionary texts that integrate design projects into introduction to statics and introduction to dynamics courses.
The study of objects’ equilibrium, statics is the first quantitative engineering course that many students take, says Plesha. Next, they study dynamics, the study of objects’ motion.
On campus, about two-thirds of engineering freshmen and sophomores take these two courses. But current statics and dynamics textbooks, often in their ninth or 10th editions, don’t do a good job of incorporating design, he says.
“Students in statics and dynamics can do meaningful design — and they don’t need to wait until they’re juniors or seniors,” says Plesha, who is co-authoring the texts with Penn State University Associate Professors of Engineering Science and Mechanics Gary Gray and Francesco Costanzo.
The new books present everyday design challenges. Students might design a simple bridge to cross a creek in a garden, select the size of the cable that suspends a traffic light over an intersection, or devise a spring system that supports plates on a cafeteria line. “They’re things I think students could relate to, but they’re within the scope of what they should be able to do at that stage in their education,” he says.
There also is a structured approach for problem solving throughout each book. Each problem starts off with a “roadmap” that lays out a strategy for a solution. The solution includes modeling, idealizations, governing equations, a computational phase, and finally,
a discussion of the quality of the results and an interpretation of what they mean. The books incorporate computing tools such as Mathematica, Maple and MATLAB, which are useful for solving equations. “We’ve tried to select problems that are typical of how engineers use statics and dynamics in daily practice,” he says.
Although the books are not yet complete, Plesha and his colleagues have used them
in class. “The feedback that I’ve gotten has been overwhelmingly positive,” he says.
“The students complain a lot when we switch to the remaining chapters at the end of the other book.”
When the writing is finished, publisher McGraw Hill will ask instructors to classroom-test the books around the country, and the three will develop accompanying multimedia that may help students understand complicated motion and dynamics. “One of the challenges of statics — and dynamics, to a lesser extent — is that the mathematics is pretty straightforward once a problem is boiled down to its essential elements,” says Plesha. “But boiling it down to its essential elements is the hard part. And that requires good visualization abilities.”
In the meantime, he says, writing is job one: “There are some things I want to accomplish right now in taking it to the next level, based on the feedback that I’ve had.”
To learn more, contact Plesha at firstname.lastname@example.org.