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Michael Plesha
Engineering Physics

ENGINEERING PHYSICS Professor Michael Plesha wrote the book — literally — on statics. (It’s called Engineering Mechanics: Statics; McGraw-Hill, 2009, with co-authors G.L. Gray and F. Costanzo.)

But he didn’t stop there.

Nearly a decade ago, Plesha began teaching Statics (EMA 201); with an enrollment of up to 350 students a semester, the introductory course had a reputation for dry content and uninspired delivery. His goal was to transform the course and excite students about statics, the study and analysis of structural equilibrium. Since then, he has added character, dimension and relevance to this large-scale lecture course, incorporating real-life engineering design problems, introducing applications to such emerging areas as nanotechnology, and developing a series of animations — and videos, in progress — that students say improve their understanding of statics concepts. In addition, he implemented “clicker” response pads that not only provided him real-time feedback about student comprehension of the material, but also promoted interaction among students as they discussed answers with their classmates. “Frequent student interaction and dialogue in lectures created an atmosphere that is both challenging and motivating,” says a former student. “Professor Plesha demands excellence in the classroom but always tempers his requests with a sense of respect and assurance that if a student works hard, the outcome will almost always be positive.”

UW-Madison statics students, as well as approximately 800 students per semester at Texas A&M University, have used preview copies of Engineering Mechanics: Statics for years. “Hitherto, without exception, all the major textbooks, including such classics as Beer and Johnston, were entirely focused on just engineering calculations and no indication was provided into exactly how these calculations were to be used in engineering practice,” says Arun Srinivasa, a Texas A&M associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Plesha’s thoroughly modern, 21st-century text incorporates meaningful design discussions, comprehensive treatment of free-body diagrams, structured problem-solving approaches and problem-based introduction of new mechanical concepts. Plesha and his co-authors are plowing new pedagogical ground with problem-solving methodology that helps students learn mechanics concepts and transfer that knowledge to practical engineering applications, says William Stenquist, McGraw-Hill Higher Education senior sponsoring editor. “Plesha’s statics book will be at the forefront of engineering education in the U.S. and throughout the world,” he says.

Coupled with the text, Plesha’s teaching and technological innovations in Statics have increased enrollment significantly in engineering mechanics and astronautics and prompted the Department of Biomedical Engineering to add Statics and its companion, Dynamics, as required undergraduate courses.

As a complement to their statics text, Plesha, Gray and Costanzo authored Engineering Mechanics: Dynamics (publication forthcoming via McGraw-Hill). The variety of examples makes the texts relevant to students with myriad interests, says Engineering Physics Professor Robert Witt, who reviewed the books. “From camping tools to transmissions, from NASCAR to James Bond-like chase scenes, from biomedical devices to air traffic control, Mike and his colleagues have selected a set of examples that change the way students look at their world,” he says. “When students see things around them in an entirely new perspective — it’s not a front porch, it’s an array of load-bearing and zero-force members — it’s clear that their education has been transformational. Mike is a catalyst of transformation.”