Homework assignments in five sections of Basic Engineering 110, Mechanics of Materials, at UMR have gone digital and visual, thanks to a team of UMR researchers.
Using a nearly $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Dr. Timothy Philpot, assistant professor of basic engineering at UMR, and three other UMR colleagues created MecMovies, a software program that allows professors to visually illustrate hard-to-picture engineering concepts. From games to animations, MecMovies does more than just show pictures, Philpot explains.
"There are a lot of things in this class that are hard to visualize," Philpot says. "Sometimes if you’re just left to do it with chalk on the board, it’s hard to get the point across. In 10 seconds with something like this, you can pretty clearly show what’s going on. For example, the animated movies focus on particular topics and communicate in ways you can’t really do in the classroom."
Available online at http://web.mst.edu/~mecmovie/index.html, MecMovies guides students step by step through a large number of examples commonly used in the Mechanics of Materials course. The software allows students to interactively test their understanding of course concepts with relevant questions and exercises followed by immediate feedback. The questions are dynamically generated and give a different set of numbers each time, allowing students to repeat the exercises as needed.
The interactive exercises and games focus students on specific skills that are often trouble spots in the course, Philpot says. "It’s funny. When you put a game in front of students, even simple games, they want to get 100 percent," Philpot says. "It’s not good enough for them to sort of know it. They want to get perfect scores. What more could you ask for?"
Students across the world have responded well to the software, and that’s not just from Philpot’s personal observations. In fall 2003, the UMR researchers conducted a study with more than 30 institutions worldwide to discover if there was any measurable difference between students who used the software and those who didn’t. "There was a significant difference in performance in the classes using the software relative to the others," Philpot adds. "We’ve shown that the students who have used it have benefitted from it, and moreover, the software seems to help students enjoy the course more."
Other UMR researchers who worked on the MecMovies project include: Dr. Ralph Flori Jr., associate professor of basic engineering; Dr. Richard Hall, professor of information science and technology and associate dean for research in the UMR School of Information Science and Technology; and Dr. David Oglesby, professor emeritus of basic engineering.
Schools in such distant locations as Bristol, England, and Oman, Jordan, have asked for permission to use MecMovies in their classrooms, something the research team provides to all educational organizations free of charge. Because the Internet connection in these schools can be slow and unpredictable, Philpot has packaged the program so they can take everything, customize it, and put it on their own servers.
Students and professors aren’t the only ones to recognize the impact MecMovies can have in the classroom. On Oct. 23, the National Engineering Education Delivery System (NEEDS), a digital library of learning resources for engineering education, awarded Philpot with its 2004 Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Education Courseware. The award recognizes high-quality, non-commercial courseware designed to enhance engineering education.
"I won the prize in 1998 as well for MDSolids, another educational software program for engineering mechanics," Philpot adds. "Hundreds and hundreds of people all over the place use it. It’s cool to sit at my computer and get email from South Africa, New Zealand or Brazil — from professors and students who find the software to be a really helpful tool in their classes."