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Great Communicators

There’s a myth about Saskatchewan, Canada, that the topography is so flat you can watch your dog streak away from you for three days straight. Of course, you’d need a telescope to see Spot run, but they don’t call this a prairie province for nothing. The legend intrigued Steve Bosch, so he decided to test it. Drawing on trigonometry and geometry, together with information on the size of the Earth, he found that it was, in fact, pure myth: “Because of the curvature of the Earth, the dog would go out of sight in less than a day even if the ground appeared perfectly flat.”

Bosch performed the test last year as part of a senior course at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, where he was completing an undergraduate mechanical engineering degree. Called Busting Myths with Analysis, the course is based, in part, on the Discovery Channel’s popular show MythBusters.

The class grew out of a desire by its designers, mechanical engineering Prof. Warren Finlay and Associate Prof. Jason Carey, to show students what problems could be solved with the math sophistication they possessed. “Our students learn a lot of material in their undergrad years,” Finlay says. “They get overwhelmed and have a hard time absorbing it all and actually realizing what they know. This course aims to pull it all together.”

Both instructors had come to realize that mechanical engineering students tend to view math as peripheral to their education, and even to resent being asked to use any but the simplest of analytical tools.

Using fluid mechanics and Newton’s laws, students figured out that yes, in the right situation, a water heater can blast through several floors.

It’s not that mechanical engineers are afraid of math, the professors say; their degree requires some understanding of calculus, linear algebra, ordinary differential equations, partial differential equations, transform methods, complex variables, computer programming, and numerical analysis. More likely, according to the instructors, students just don’t have the same passion for abstract math concepts as they have for more hands-on activities. They want to understand how things work, and they want their answers to have practical meaning, Carey says. “We know they’ve got the tools, but if they don’t see how math can be used as an application in engineering, they won’t appreciate it.” In addition, math courses are usually taught in a separate building and not by engineering professors, letting students infer that math is somehow of secondary importance.

Finlay had never watched MythBusters when he turned to the Web in search of a course that taught students to synthesize information, a skill in which many of them need practice. He found a few episodes of the show on YouTube and learned that some of his students loved it. Carey, for his part, has seen myriad episodes. He even identifies with one of the hosts – Adam Savage, the “louder, goofy” one – although he likes Kari Byron’s taste in heavy-metal music. Finlay, his colleague contends, is more like Jamie Hyneman, the “smart, calm” one.

MythBusters is compelling, in part, because the hosts tap a wide array of knowledge to debunk or prove commonly held notions. Adapted for the classroom, the professors decided, it could teach students how to better synthesize all the information they have learned in both engineering and math classes and apply it to solve complex problems.

Hitting the Ceiling

One of the more popular problems in the course asks the question: Can a water heater really take off like a rocket under the right circumstances? If the weld that holds it onto the floor fails and all the water comes blasting out, will it propel itself through one or more floors of a house or an apartment? It’s a classic myth and one that was literally demonstrated on MythBusters. Students use fluid mechanics and Newton’s laws to figure out how fast the heater will move when it launches and how much force it requires to go through the ceiling.

In theory, the problem sounds simple, but it takes students a couple of hours to do all the work and to realize that yes, in the right situation, a water heater can blast through several floors. “They love it,” says Finlay. “But they still groan a little bit at the detailed calculations.” Students then change the variables and redo the analysis; for instance, will it blast through a concrete wall or a ceiling with steel beams?

In another popular assignment, students take two phone books and interlace the individual pages. They then try to split the phone books apart by pulling on them. It’s impossible to do manually because of the friction between the pages, which compress together the more the books get pulled. “MythBusters took two tanks to do it,” says Carey. “When I saw that myth on TV, I thought, ‘I have got to put that in my course.’ ” But students can’t test it using heavy machinery; they actually have to do the calculations to figure out the amount of force it takes to pull the phone books apart.

Steve Bosch was familiar with MythBusters before joining the course. He found the show hilarious and thought the class would be appealing even if students “didn’t get to blow up anything.” He wasn’t disappointed. “It was still really interesting, and it bridged the gap between the theoretical and the practical realm in engineering.”

Indeed, student evaluations of the course have been very positive, the instructors say. The students also enjoy challenging the professors. “They’ll say, ‘Did you consider this variable?’ ” says Carey. “I love that they’re thinking outside of the box.”

Tenille Camphaug, a mechanical engineer who graduated from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, last year, says that math was her least favorite subject. However, once she took the course, she found the subject more enlightening. It “definitely showed us where math is useful and made us think about things in a completely different way,” she says. “Instead of observing things, you figure out how they work.”

Although many of the class problems come directly from MythBusters, students also bring in their own favorite myths to solve; other myths come from movies or even arise serendipitously. Once, after Carey had driven home from the airport in winter, he left a can of Coke in his car overnight. The temperature went down to minus 20 degrees Celsius, and the drink exploded all over the place. “The ceiling was full of Coke,” he says. “The cleaning was absolutely awful.” But his self-described “embarrassing” mistake provided another challenge for his course, this time revolving around the thermal expansion of water.

One of Bosch’s favorite problems came straight out of Batman: Can a Formula One racecar drive on the ceiling of a tunnel to escape or catch up with the bad guys? This wasn’t something they were prepared to test in actuality, of course. But by doing the calculations, Bosch and his classmates discovered that the spoiler on the car can create enough down force to overcome gravity if the car is going fast enough, say around 112 miles per hour.

So, the Batman stunt turned out to be real after all. And by offering this and other challenges, Finlay and Carey opened students’ eyes to the fact that yes, math is highly relevant to engineering – and it can be fun. Myth busted.


Alice Daniel is a freelance writer based in Fresno, Calif.




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