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The Experience Matters

    Adding Numerical Computation to the ET Toolbox

    by Tim Bower

    The Engineering Technology faculty at K-State's Polytechnic campus pride ourselves on teaching students how to quickly become productive contributors to technology-driven teams. We are successful in preparing students to be quick contributors because of how and what we teach. We use project-based learning with laboratory-intensive courses to give students hands-on experience with enough engineering theory to tackle modern engineering problems. While our programs can accurately be described as more applied than theoretical, we do not shy away from complex engineering problems. A key to mastering engineering problem solving in an applied curriculum is to have the right tools in the toolbox.

    Modern engineering problems can be complex. They can require a fairly advanced knowledge of mathematics. Even more to the point, they can be large —involving a large number of variables and parameters. Thus, in our continuous improvement efforts, we have added a new course titled "Applied Data Analysis and Tools," which is designed to add numerical computation to our students' toolboxes. Think of the need for numerical computation in the same way that you think of calculators. We are probably all glad that we learned how to do long division in elementary school. But performing long division is tedious and prone to mistakes. So when presented with a division problem, we either do a rough estimate or reach for a calculator. This new class is designed to teach students how to make use of computers to solve engineering problems rather than pencil, paper or even a handheld calculator. In doing so, students will be able to work quickly, accurately and produce impressive results.

    The course uses software tools commonly used by professional engineers to teach applied problem solving skills, data analysis and visualization. The primary appeal of computers towards the field of engineering is their fast numerical processing capabilities and the ability to visually display data. But computers have strict rules about how they are programmed.  However, that does not mean that effective engineers have to also be computer scientists.

    Modern software tools commonly used by engineers are not yet able to relax the strict rules of programming, but they can accomplish some amazing things with just a few lines of code. The primary software tool used in the course is MATLAB from The MathWorks, Inc. Three features of MATLAB make it stand out:

    1. Matrix and vector support
    2. Data visualization tools
    3. Huge library of functions covering nearly every area of math, science and engineering.

    To reap the benefits of using computers to aide engineering problem solving, one needs to learn a few simple things about programming and the mathematics of numerical computation. To find numeric solutions to the most challenging engineering problems often requires using computers for discrete representations of systems and the application of a branch of mathematics called linear algebra. Linear algebra is the language of vectors and matrices towards solving systems of equations. The systems that engineers design and analyze are usually defined by systems of linear and differential equations, not a single equation.

    Using a computer to solve difficult problems is fun, rewarding, and essential for the modern engineer. It is a very applied and fresh approach to problem solving.

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