A newsletter for alumni, students, and friends of the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Now in its fourth year, the Freshman Design Course (Introduction to
Engineering) introduces students to the real world of engineering by
presenting them with actual client problems to solve. ME Professors
Patrick V. Farrell, Karen A. Thole, Frank J. Fronczak, Jay K. Martin, and Lecturer
Katherine Sanders are among the 11 faculty from six different
departments who teach sections of the freshmen-only class. Farrell
said that the class helps bridge the gap between engineering's
theory-packed first-year curriculum and the tangible rewards of the
"The origin of the class," Farrell said, "was to introduce students to engineering by doing engineering. We also hope to increase retention rates of women and minorities in engineering at a critical time, when those who are interested in the field decide to stay or to switch to other fields. We create an engineering experience for students who have limited engineering in their background. The class puts the curriculum into focus and builds student confidence."
Faculty look for community projects that can be completed in a semester, have no single obvious solution, are inexpensive, and require student-client interaction. Previous class team projects have included adjustable stairs for hospital patients in need of occupational therapy, a harness for companion dogs that allows the dog's handicapped master to lean on the animal, and a ski chair lift that will also accommodate all-terrain bikes.
This semester, students have been asked to design, for example, devices to reduce stoop labor for vegetable growers in community shared agriculture plots, a method to safely transport an electric scooter via the airlines, a stage floor lift for Vilas Hall theaters, and a horse grooming stage for disabled children at a summer camp. Early on, the students meet with the clients to define the project and get a feel for the real-life situation.
During the design class's weekly three-hour lab sessions, students work in small groups. At first they meet as part of a group of four or five to develop a working design for their assigned problem. Later these small groups merge into somewhat larger groups to polish their designs and build a prototype. At the course's conclusion, each group formally presents its product to the class, faculty, industry representatives, and potential users of the product.
The teamwork concept is another valuable learning experience for the budding engineers in the class. Helping with that concept are a group of senior assistants who work with the groups and offer input from the perspective of an experienced student.
Professor Farrell said that since the class has been offered,
retention rates are somewhat higher, and students who took EPD 160
seem to do much better in subsequent classes.
ME Newsletter is a periodic publication of the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Mechanical Engineering. Correspondence should be sent to the address below.
Editor: Gail Gawenda
Designer: Lynda Litzkow
NOVEMBER 1997 Contents