Redesigned course challenges students to use 3D printing in new ways

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mechanical engineering’s junior design course, ME 340, is an important part of the undergraduate curriculum. The class challenges students to go beyond the basic design principles they learn freshman and sophomore years to create a physical product in preparation for their senior capstone design project.

For spring 2016, mechanical engineering faculty saw an opportunity to add value to the junior design course by asking students to engage with other students throughout the community and to rethink their idea of a product. The new format also puts 3D printing front and center.

Tim Simpson, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and Paris vonLockette, associate professor of mechanical engineering, are leading the course redesign.

“If you think about design in an entrepreneurial sense, the goal is to study a market to determine its needs, and then turn that knowledge into products. In most academic design courses, students start off partway through that process. They are given a thing to design, like a vacuum. The new course project will increase their scope and understanding of what design is,” vonLockette said.

The basic premise of the course will not change — students will still work through a semester-long process to identify customer needs, develop concepts, prototype ideas, refine designs, and create a product. But the customers are now students (e.g. middle school, high school, or peer college students) and the product will be an educational or outreach activity.

The focus is shifting from product development, such as vacuum cleaners and wind turbines, to educational and outreach activities based on 3D printing. Students will be asked to think beyond creating a basic product to use 3D printing in a new way by creating a hands-on activity to engage students in the classroom.

“We are going to challenge students to think about a course where they struggled to learn something and to think about how they might use 3D printing to make it easier to understand,” Simpson said.

Students can gear their projects toward any age student from kindergarten through college and the department is partnering with local middle and high schools and learning-focused organizations, such as Discovery Space and the Schlow Library.

As 3D printing becomes an increasingly prevalent manufacturing technique, many faculty are trying to integrate more of this element into their classrooms. To help with the increasing print demands and provide greater access to all of its students, Penn State is opening the Maker Commons in the Pattee and Paterno Library that will house 32 printers for anyone with a Penn State ID to use.

At the end of the semester, each student team will pitch its idea in order to demonstrate not only technical understanding, but also business acumen. For spring 2016, the department has turned these pitches into a competition and partnered with Boeing to offer prize money to winning teams.

In the future, the department hopes to partner with more companies on course projects. Industry engagement at the junior level gives students the opportunity to learn about various companies and jobs in their field, so they are better prepared when looking for co-ops and internships.

“At the end of the class, the students have to execute some engineering and make a product, but they are going to have to spend a lot of time understanding customer needs and challenges and then really think about how 3D printing is going to help with those challenges,” Simpson said.

In addition to changing the project focus, the new course format will also engage undergraduate students in teaching. Undergraduate students who have previously taken the course will be trained to assist with the writing aspects of the course, gaining writing critiquing experience while helping their peers.

The redesigned ME 340 is a step in the department’s goals to address recommendations from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Vision 2030 report. ASME’s Vision 2030 project analyzed the perspectives of engineering managers in industry, recent mechanical engineering graduates, and mechanical engineering education, who offered assessments and recommendations on how mechanical engineers should be educated to meet the current and future demands of a transforming profession. The report’s suggested that mechanical engineering curriculums should be strengthened to improve students’ problem-solving and communication skills, while also gaining insight into the realities of business.

Last Updated December 15, 2015