Using 3D Printers to Transform Learning in Undergraduate Mechanical Engineering Courses


Get ready, future engineers.  Through a collaboration between CASTL-HE and faculty in the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Curry School of Education, undergraduate mechanical engineering courses are about to be radically transformed.  Thanks to high-tech design software and 3D printers (also called fabricators), mechanical engineering students in undergraduate dynamics courses will no longer have to puzzle over two-dimensional textbook drawings of dynamic components.  Instead, they’ll reproduce those static drawings in CAD (computer-aided design), create the actual parts with 3D printers, then design and create a dynamic mechanism from scratch using these same innovative technologies.  These new approaches will allow those students newest to the field to more easily connect basic engineering concepts with their practical applications in real-world engineering.

This project responds to a range of concerns about pedagogy in undergraduate engineering courses.  Some mathematically gifted students find introductory courses too applied, while other students with a penchant for hands-on design and construction often find such courses too abstract.  Edward Berger, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, believes that “achieving better outcomes through improved pedagogy and assessment is a real priority … Individuals are certainly doing some great things, but large scale overhauls at the department or school level are quite rare.”  Pedagogical innovation using 3D printer technology promises to improve learning for young engineering students in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UVA.

“[A]chieving better outcomes through improved pedagogy and assessment is a real priority…”  Edward Berger, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering

UVA currently has seven state-of-the-art Dimension 3D printers to help make such pedagogical innovations possible.  These printers create three-dimensional objects by depositing molten plastic in thin layers, not unlike a robotic arm holding a hot glue gun, building an object a single layer at a time.  Dynamic mechanisms can be printed out fully assembled, so there’s very little post-fabrication work to be done.  What’s more, the associated design software is intuitive, making it easy for students to convert their CAD designs into 3D objects. Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Gavin Garner has spearheaded the use of these printers in engineering courses, and he’s passionate about using them to transform pedagogical approaches for students.

Jennifer Chiu, Assistant Professor in the Curry School of Education and an expert in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education, believes this project will dramatically enhance student learning.  “[T]echnological innovations create ways to augment what faculty are already doing,” she says.  “Being able to visualize motion opens access to core dynamics concepts.  In this way students are able to actually engage in problem-solving and understand core content instead of trying to figure out the problem.”  It’s no surprise that Dr. Berger agrees:  “Visualization skills are critical and … improving [them] early in the curriculum will pay dividends in the future.”  In addition to developing students’ problem-solving skills and content knowledge, 3D visualization and printing may very well help to improve young undergraduates’ attitudes towards engineering as a major and a career.

This project promises to have a broad impact at UVA and beyond.  On Grounds, it will serve as a pilot study for future applications of 3D technology in introductory courses throughout the School of Engineering and Applied Science.  And through a partnership with Pearson, Inc., publishers of Dynamics by R. C. Hibbeler, the most widely adopted undergraduate dynamics textbook in schools of engineering across the country, instructors will have access to the visualization instructional units Drs. Berger and Garner will create.  So teaching and learning in mechanical engineering classrooms is about to be radically transformed—and you won’t even need 3D glasses to experience it.

Partnership with the UVa School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

CASTL-HE Researcher: Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas

Collaborators: Edward Berger, Gavin Garner, and Jennifer Chiu