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Teaching Toolbox

SIMULATORS TO STIMULATE STUDENTS

By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

Students are always excited by doing “real” engineering. Simulators that engineers use to design everything from bridges to electrical circuits are a good way to capitalize on this enthusiasm. They allow students to complete realistic designs in a reasonable amount of time, and there are versions for all engineering disciplines.

There are some disadvantages to simulators. They can be relatively expensive. They require a high-end PC or workstation, coding for unusual problems, or inputting of physical property data, which makes them less user-friendly than generic programs. Not only that, simulators generally have overly detailed manuals and offer only rudimentary help. They also assume users know what they are doing, so there are no checks on carelessness.

Unless students have learned how to use the simulator in a prerequisite course, practice sessions in a computer laboratory will probably be necessary. We use sections of 20 students scheduled for two hours per week, although they typically meet only six or so times a semester. One of the lectures is replaced with an optional help session during the week of the computer laboratory.

Some lecturing on simulator use is helpful, but too much can make students' eyes glaze over. The start of most simulators—logging on, picking units, choosing interconnections, selecting a file name—consists of a series of arbitrary steps. Because these steps are arbitrary, logic or engineering knowledge won't help the new user get through them. Manuals, in covering all possible options, sometimes devote up to 50 pages just to explain the basics. If available, use a simplified starting manual. Otherwise, write your own, outlining the starting procedure sans the bells and whistles. When the start-up instructions have been completed, have your teaching assistant do a beta test of the procedures. Such testing should be done yearly because of changes in both the simulator and the university operating systems.

Once students graduate and confront new simulation systems on the job, they may not have the luxury of formal training. Thus, in the engineering part of the simulator, give them just enough instruction to make simple things work and encourage them to explore the simulator on their own. This explore-on-your-own procedure works best if someone knowledgeable is available to answer questions and help troubleshoot. Otherwise, relatively small computer problems can generate immense frustration.

Simulators should not be black boxes—the students need to know the theories being used. Have students check a few simple problems with a calculator and thoroughly discuss the assumptions inherent in the model. If the simulator allows a choice of models (e.g. vapor-liquid equilibrium correlations), have the students compare results with different choices, including one that is clearly inappropriate.

As in all curricular matters, some repetition reinforces learning, so pick simulators that will be useful in several courses. You will know students are learning when they voluntarily use the simulator in one of your later courses.

 

Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at purdue@asee.org

 

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