The aerospace curriculum during students’ sophomore and junior years is dominated by core technical subjects such mechanics of materials, aerodynamics, propulsion, and controls. Ideally, these engineering science courses give students the theoretical background that they can apply in engineering design courses, on student project teams, and as a practicing engineer. However, it can be easy to teach engineering science courses with little connection to the practice of engineering. One way to make the connection between engineering science content and engineering practice is to frame this technical content as mathematical models that describe natural phenomena under certain simplifying assumptions. With this framing, the purpose of engineering science courses shifts from memorizing formulas and applying them to textbook problems, to modeling systems in the real world. This paper describes open-ended modeling problems that the first author developed for his sophomore-level aerospace mechanics of materials course, and assesses students’ opinions of these problems.
This paper first presents engineering judgment about mathematical modeling as a framework for open-ended modeling problems and then describes the initial set of two open-ended modeling problems that the first author designed around certain aspects of engineering judgment: making assumptions or simplifications, determining appropriate uses of technology tools, discretizing, and determining what elements or conditions were “typical.” The paper then investigates student opinions of the open-ended modeling problems through two methods: quantitative analysis of a student survey that shows how students felt about the problems, and qualitative analysis of interviews with five students that probes why students felt they way they did about the problems. Students interviewed found that the open-ended modeling problems related to the real world, helped to teach course concepts, were fun, and made them think. Lastly, this paper concludes by describing modifications the first author made to the open-ended modeling problems for the next semester, as well as our future research plans.
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