A mechanical engineering class overseen by Joshua Summers gave 120 students a chance to not only design and build equipment, but to do some good for the community and learn how to interact with customers.

Clemson University mechanical engineering students show elementary school students how to use equipment.

Clemson University mechanical engineering students show elementary school students how to use equipment.

Summers had students in his Mechanical Engineering 4010 class design and build engineering and science equipment for Central Elementary, Blue Ridge Elementary and Chastain Road Elementary schools.

Summers, the College of Engineering and Science IDEaS professor, is also using project to explore new ways of teaching students and to improve engineering practice.

Students wrapped up the fall semester by joining together in the Fluor Daniel Engineering Innovation Building for the Clemson Engineering Design Expo. The college students provided final instructions on how to use the equipment before handing it off to the elementary schools

“This is a unique program that integrates service, education and research,” Summers said. “It engages students’ passions and helps them build skills they will need in their careers.”

The equipment included water tables for erosion, wind tunnels, velocity measurement tracks, irrigation systems, water wheels, solar and wind comparisons, light tunnels and acoustic systems.

The class is the first half of a two-semester program, Mechanical Engineering Senior Design. It’s comprised of two classes, Mechanical Engineering 4010 and 4020. In the second part, students work with an industry sponsor to design and build a project that is then presented to back to the sponsor.

Summers coordinated Mechanical Engineering 4020 for 15 semesters before taking over the 4010 class. His experience helped give him the idea to collaborate with elementary schools.

Summers was finding that students wanted to work on altruistic projects. At the same time, Summers recognized a need to help prepare students for interacting with customers and stakeholders.

He also saw that some aspects of creating a prototype were lost on many students. It was typically the first time they had ever built anything as part of the mechanical engineering curriculum.

After running the program for four years, Summers saw another opportunity. It was a fertile research platform for studying student design processes.

For the research, it was key that Mechanical Engineering 4010 had many teams working on the same large-scale projects through an entire semester.

Many other courses offer small, trivial design experiences that are not sophisticated enough to test different aspects of design, such as understanding requirements evolution, Summers said. Other courses have larger scale design experiences, but with only one, two, or three teams addressing the same problem.

As a result of the research, Summers and his research group have been able to study requirements evolution and to understand the role functional and nonfunctional requirements play in student design projects.

“This is just one example of many in which faculty at Clemson University are exploring new ways to teach students and provide service to the community while conducting research to help improve engineering practice,” Summers said.