Engineering students worldwide learn new skills using Penn State's supercomputer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students throughout the world are learning about ways they can simulate and test car crashes, new materials and products in a mechanical engineering course taught online through Penn State World Campus, ME 461: Finite Elements in Engineering. They are analyzing complex engineering scenarios with help from Penn State’s high-performance computing system, or supercomputer, known as the Institute for CyberScience Advanced CyberInfrastructure (ICS-ACI).

Reuben Kraft, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and ICS faculty co-hire, teaches his students how to use different software on the ICS-ACI system to help them learn the principles of finite element analysis (FEA). Through this computerized way of solving problems, engineers and scientists predict how an object reacts to real-world forces like vibration, heat and mechanical impact.

For example, companies use FEA to test product designs without having to physically create them. This reduces design and manufacturing costs, analyzes various situations like drops or heat tolerance, improves product performance, and brings products to the market faster.

Students spend time first learning the theory of FEA and then once a week have an online lab, using ICS-ACI, where they can apply what they have learned. They model advanced problems such as car crash impacts, plastic deformation and heat transfer.

Dana Frye, a structural analyst for General Dynamics Electric Boat, said his favorite part of the class was these practical applications.

“One of the last applications involved simulating a truck crash, which was a very large and computationally expensive analysis, which would have taken ages [to run] on my personal computer,” Frye said. “It was pretty awesome to be on my laptop in another state and still be able to patch into the ICS-ACI and take advantage of all of that computing power.”

Frye said that he enjoyed taking advantage of the computing available through ICS while he was taking Penn State courses. Any Penn State student, faculty or staff member with an ICS-ACI account can use the system for free through the “Open Queue” feature, which allows people to submit jobs to idle computing resources.

Frye spent time exploring programs such as Abaqus, a software suite for FEA and computer-aided engineering; MATLAB, a high-level language and interactive environment for numerical computation; and Mathematica, a fully integrated software environment for technical and scientific computing.

Kraft uses practical applications in his course because the hands-on approach lets students test whether they have really learned a concept.

“When I was exposed to finite element analysis, it wasn’t through a class or a textbook. It was through solving a problem that somebody gave me. I was stumbling around, flipping through manuals and asking people for help,” Kraft said. “That memory became a useful perspective on the class because by solving problems, it makes you think about how it works and motivates you to learn the theory.”

Natalie Hoopes said she has already applied what she learned in her job as a structures engineer at Pratt & Whitney, working within the aerospace industry. Like Frye, she remembers the applications, which were the "hands-on" part of the class. 

“Dr. Kraft would demonstrate how to create a finite element model and the theories behind it, which showed the practical application of the class,” said Hoopes, a graduate student in the online Penn State World Campus mechanical engineering master’s degree program.

When Kraft first began teaching the class five years ago, he had his students install certain software on their personal computers. He ran into issues of outdated, slow machines or ones that were unable to run the software at all. Turning to ICS-ACI eased the process of getting students on a high-performance computing system. By using ICS-ACI, his students are able to work from anywhere at any time.

“You don’t have to worry about installing software or the speed of someone’s computer,” Kraft said. “There is no issue of computer overhead, which makes the process easier.”

Kraft said that students may struggle a little in the first few weeks due to the difficult nature of FEA and having to learn a new system, but once they understand the material and software they begin to truly enjoy the class.

“Just understanding how to log on, open a module and load software is a new concept for many students,” Kraft said. “My metric for success is whether or not a student can take a random problem, create a finite element model of it and then explain a little bit of the theory behind it.”

Kraft’s goal is for students leaving ME 461 to be prepared for real-world experiences in the world of high-performance computing, which is important for students entering the workforce and industry. Several students have stated that the class helped them with their job search. The class allows students to become familiar with these systems, which greatly benefits them later down the road in their jobs as engineers for various industries across the United States and the world.

“I have students from all over the country and the world taking this class online,” Kraft said. “None of this would be possible without ICS-ACI.”

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Last Updated June 27, 2018