By Brooke Coupal
When Asst. Teaching Prof. Jonathan Perez de Alderete took the Introduction to Mechanical Engineering course at UMass Lowell as an undergraduate student 13 years ago, he learned how to build a windmill with the goal of creating a clean power system.
But as the field of mechanical engineering evolves, so has the introductory course.
Perez de Alderete, who received his bachelor’s (’13), master’s (’14) and doctoral (’17) degrees from the university, took part in the latest overhaul of the course in the fall of 2020 alongside Asst. Teaching Prof. Carter Keough.
“The way I see Intro is that it’s very much an opportunity for the students to get a chance to learn how to think in the framework of engineers,” says Perez de Alderete. “A lot of it is learning how to think about a problem and breaking down the problem into really bite-sized pieces. In the Intro class, we do all of it. It’s like you go from that little kernel of an idea to a fully-fledged concept, all in one semester.”
Keough and Perez de Alderete created a hands-on project that teams of students work on for more than half of the semester as they gain technical and professional skills. The students are tasked with designing an end effector, or gripper, that can pick up a series of cubes to make a stack. The students first brainstorm how many fingers they want on their gripping mechanism before sketching their designs and translating them into SolidWorks, a 3D computer-aided design software package.
“It really is super hands-on, because you’re doing a lot of the stuff yourself and then bringing it to your team, and you’ll come together and put all of your combined work into a final product,” says Kevin Douangchack, a freshman mechanical engineering major who took the introductory course in spring with Milo DiPaola, an adjunct faculty member.
The student teams use a laser to cut out their 3D models, which are then attached to a hobbyist computer numerical control (CNC) machine made up of 6-inch square plastic modular blocks with various holes and compartments and off-the-shelf hardware and motors.
This modular base system was developed by Assoc. Prof. David Willis, Prof. Christopher Hansen and Prof. Sammy Shina of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Plastics Engineering Prof. Stephen Johnston under a 2013 National Science Foundation grant aimed at improving hands-on learning opportunities for first-year students.
Students proceed to create a script in MATLAB, a programming and numeric computing platform, to see if their end effector can successfully complete the task of stacking the cubes when hooked up to the CNC machine. This project involves a lot of trial and error, which is part of the learning process, says Hansen, who chairs the department.
“There’s something powerful about students being able to create their idea and then realize something is wrong with it, and then go back and get new ideas and iterate through this process,” he says.
Getting their end effectors to work is one of the most rewarding parts of the class for students.
“You hear them scream, ‘Yes, we did it!’” Keough says. “It’s like the stereotypical eureka moment that you expect.”
Keough has seen how important hands-on learning has been for students trying to get a feel for mechanical engineering.
“Throughout the pandemic, one of the things that students appreciated in this class is that they do have that hands-on aspect, so it’s not just, ‘Hey, you’re able to work these problems, make this thing in theory,’ but they do get to use the tools. They’re learning new technology; they’re getting exposure to machinery that they may or may not have had access to in high school,” she says.
Luke Mulcahy, a sophomore mechanical engineering major who also took the introductory course during the spring semester, says the hands-on experience “is nice because you feel like you’re actually engineering instead of just sitting in a classroom taking notes. It’s a nice change of pace.”
The course helps build a strong foundation for the students’ technical and professional skills, which range from computer programming and design to communication and teamwork, as they advance to higher-level classes, says Hansen.
“The course sets the first level of this foundation of what they’re going to get in the remainder of the curriculum,” he says.
Emily Deveau, a freshman who plans on declaring mechanical engineering as her major after taking the introductory course, says she is eager to continue building up her skillset. “I like that we’re using SolidWorks and CAD (computer-aided design),” she says, “and I’m excited that I’ll be able to learn code.”