July 22, 2003
Purdue creates new 'roving lab' for engineering education
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. A Purdue University researcher has developed a low-cost "roving laboratory" for engineering undergraduates to design and conduct their own field experiments in a federally funded project to better prepare students for the job market.
"The number one complaint I hear from my sponsors is that new graduates are not usually very good at designing and interpreting experiments in the field because they don't get to do it much in the classroom," said Douglas Adams, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "There is a huge leap that has to occur between being in the classroom and being in the field."
Meanwhile, industry has reduced the number of experiments conducted in the field to cut costs. "So it is more important than ever for students to graduate with keen experimental planning skills," Adams said.
Adams developed a suitcase-sized laboratory and a new course curriculum in which students design their own field experiments. The students use the portable laboratory, which consists of instruments and sensors, for experiments such as work to study the effects of vibration on bridges, aircraft, car suspensions and even the basketball floor of Purdue's Mackey Arena.
"This is how Isaac Newton did physics," Adams said. "He observed something and then he wrote down equations to describe it. I think many times in lectures we do it the other way around.
"First we write down the equations, or the theories, and then we do demos to validate the theories. But that method doesn't give students the chance to come up with their own theories. What we are doing is reversing the roles of theory and experiment by using theories to validate experiments rather than the other way around."
Several private corporations, as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and the Army Research Laboratory are participating in the project, funded through a two-year, $69,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
"I make the students write rigorous reports, and then our industrial advisory council evaluates the technical substance of the student reports at the end of the semester," Adams said. "Industry is a customer of Purdue University in the sense that we are graduating the people they are hiring, and they always jump at the opportunity to be more involved in the educational process."
The project's first year was successful, said Adams, who is preparing a research paper detailing how well the roving lab concept worked.
"Our evaluation procedures and assessment results after the first year indicate that the course achieved our objectives," Adams said. "The course and laboratory gave students more control of the learning process and provided an excellent introductory education in vibrations and experimental mechanics.
"I hope to make this a permanent course after the funding runs out in 2004," Adams said. "I think this is a good example of how discovery and learning can be integrated to make both stronger in the process."
The lab might be expanded to support similar efforts at other schools in the future. Information about the roving laboratory is available online. A grant from the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education, DUE-0126833, is supporting this work.
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