Date of Award

January 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering (MSME)


Mechanical Engineering

First Advisor

Karthik Ramani

Committee Member 1

Monica Cardella

Committee Member 2

Marcial Gonzalez


Much of engineering design courses are taught through the use of standard and simplified textbook problems that typically have a “correct” answer. In helping undergraduate students learn engineering design, it is very important that they explore scenarios that are realistic. A majority of the current educational methods and computer-based tools do not bridge the gap between the textbook problems and the real world and also lack affordances for design exploration. Although computational methods such as Finite Element Analysis (FEA) have this potential, they are hard to use and require the users to spend a significant effort in learning to use them. Also, several instructors have identified significant knowledge gaps between theory and practice in concepts related to structural design and strength of materials when the students reach their senior year. To this end, a problem-based, exploration-focused interface to allow for rapid design exploration within engineering design curricula using an easy-to-use, simplified and constrained version of finite elements for stress analysis and exploration has been developed. This interface makes it possible for users to rapidly explore various design options by incorporating a FEA back end for design exploration. The current approach uses constrained design problems for weight minimization that incorporates elements of structural topology optimization but does not automate it. In addition the tool constrains the solution generation process so that users do not get poor results. Instead, the user is provided with control on decision making for changing the shape through material removal while obtaining good solutions. Using this interface, the decision making and methodology of users in the course of the activities that provide a context of control, challenge and reflection is explored. Using questionnaires, video and verbal protocol analysis assessment is integrated in ways that are important and interesting for learning. The interface demonstrates that computational tools that are transformed for learning purposes can scaffold and augment learning processes in new ways.