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  5. Textbooks advance learning for the computer generation

Textbooks advance learning for the computer generation

Sandy Klein (left) and Gregory Nellis (right). Photo: Nick Berard.

When Sandy Klein and Greg Nellis began their textbook-writing project, they didn’t plan to make the associated homework harder.

It just happened that way—and students appreciate the challenge.

But let’s back up a little bit. Before computers, thermodynamics and heat transfer engineering homework was simpler: Students used tables of fluid properties, such as specific heat, thermal conductivity and boiling point, to solve equations that yielded a single answer to a specific problem.

Now, however, computational software tools such as MATLAB and Engineering Equation Solver (EES) enable both students and professionals to automatically access property data, easily generate plots, and more thoroughly explore the relationships between variables.

Klein, the Ouweneel-Bascom Professor of mechanical engineering, and Nellis, the Kaiser Professor of mechanical engineering, say computers have opened the possibility for students to solve problems that are more interesting and relevant—but previously were far too complex to consider. “Traditional textbooks have been written as if computers don’t exist,” says Nellis. “It was frustrating teaching a class to students and trying to incorporate computers and computer software into the class in order to solve problems. From teaching, it was clear students like to use the computer to solve interesting problems, but there was no support in the books to teach them how to do this. There’s nowhere for them to go if they don’t get the information from the lecture portion of class.”

Their solution? Write new books. The resulting texts, Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer (published by Cambridge University Press) directly integrate problem-solving with the computer software students might use as professionals and are appropriate for teaching graduate and undergraduate-level engineering courses.

Both books include many examples and include the equations for solving problems and the code entered into the computer software program. For homework problems, students do the programming on their own, based on what they’ve learned from the textbooks.

The books integrate with MATLAB and MAPLE, and in particular with EES, which Klein developed. Used at hundreds of schools and companies worldwide, EES is a general equation-solving program that provides built-in property functions, unit checking, plotting capability, optimization and other capabilities.

Now that they can use a computer to do their calculations, engineering students can tackle much harder and more interesting problems from real research or the real world and do interesting optimization and design studies, says Nellis. “When you’re using just a calculator, you get one answer and that’s it,” he says. “What’s really interesting is to ask questions like how does my answer change if I change the electrical resistivity, or how does temperature change with position? That’s really hard to do with pencil and paper, because if I want every single data point along a plot, I have to solve those equations over and over again.”

He says optimization and parametric studies like those are the key to teaching students to design and to think critically about their results. “We can say we have a solution, but does it make sense,” says Nellis. “Can we understand why it’s doing what it’s doing; can we make some observations?”

He stresses that providing the tools to teach students computer modeling doesn’t diminish the rigor of a course. “Students couldn’t program the computer to do it if they couldn’t do it themselves,” he says. “The computer instructions are entered by the students. The computer does only what the students have told it to do.”

The bottom line, says Klein, is that employers increasingly expect ME graduates to be able to solve problems quickly and efficiently. “To be of value, our students must be able to understand the theory and be able to implement it to solve problems,” he says.

Christie Taylor
12/11/2013