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Teaching kids to tinker so they can design tomorrow's machines

STANFORD -- In this disposable and computerized society, the kids who will be tomorrow's engineers and inventors aren't tinkering at home the way they used to.

"If the mixer breaks, chances are your parents don't fix it, because in some ways, it's cheaper to buy a new one," said Sheri Sheppard, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

"Cars with electronic modules and fuel injection aren't something people go out and tune anymore in their garage, either."

As a result, young men and women often arrive at engineering school with more exposure to calculus and physics than to machines, Sheppard said. They won't stay that way for long at Stanford, however, if they take a course from any of the 13 faculty members in the design division of the mechanical engineering department, a group committed to getting students to roll up their sleeves.

Students of all levels take apart, fix and reassemble such things as fishing reels, bicycles and toasters in courses the design division offers to give students confidence in their hands-on skills and a better understanding of the design process. Even some students seeking degrees in business administration now build product prototypes in a new course sequence aimed at improving America's competitiveness in manufacturing.

Similarly, 15 high school students - all ethnic minority women - are spending the week of June 29 on campus tinkering with bicycles and building human measurement machines from Lego building sets. Sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Stanford School of Engineering, this short course aims to familiarize young women with science and math ability to the challenges available in engineering.

Margot Brereton, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who teaches the laboratory section for the high school girls, knows firsthand that tinkering is important. Like most of her students, she said, she didn't take things apart because "I wasn't sure I'd be able to get them back together." Stanford courses forced her to try.

"It's important because you never start designing something from scratch," she told her students as they prepared to disassemble the brake systems on used 10-speed bicycles.

"There's really no point in re-inventing the wheel. In reality, designers learn from other systems and what other people have done before them," Brereton said.

The students are getting an abbreviated version of the "Mechanical Dissection" class that Sheppard taught to engineering undergraduates for the first time last fall. The undergraduates were assigned to go fishing before they took apart a fishing reel. Sheppard wanted them to know how a reel was used before they took it apart.

Later, they were organized into design teams that had to build a machine that could accurately measure each other's heads, arm-spans and distances around the base of all five fingers on a hand. The high school students also will build a "body-meter," applying what they've learned about gears and gear ratios in bicycles to the new situation.

Writing instructions for assembly and disassembly were an integral part of the undergraduate design assignment, Sheppard said, because she wanted students to understand that successful communication is part of successful design. Each team was judged partly on the ability of another team of students to manufacture the design from the first team's written instructions.

"The course gives them a sense of design as a series of compromises," Sheppard said.

After similar exercises, graduate students in Professor Larry Leifer's "Automation and Machine Design" course take an industrial- sponsored design project from concept to hardware in seven months.

Yet another course, "Smart Product Design Fundamentals," allows graduate students to combine mechanical systems design with electronics and software design.

"I now enjoy these opportunities to design much more than taking strictly theory courses," Brereton said.

Sheppard's course in mechanical dissection is one of several developed with NASA financial grants to the Synthesis Coalition, a group of eight colleges and universities working to improve science and engineering education. Sheppard will test the effectiveness of the new teaching methods against each other and against more conventional methods during the next academic year, she said.



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