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Stand Up Strong: a MOOC on the Engineering of Structures Around Us

Dr. Vicki May is teaching an introductory engineering course that examines structures–how they are made, how they stand up, and when they fail.

Cable-stayed bridges are hot in the structural engineering world. They resemble suspension bridges (like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge) in appearance, but instead of relying on main cables, they spread forces through multiple smaller cables. The benefit is that big cables don’t have to run along the whole span of the bridge, and there is much more flexibility in how the bridge is designed.

Cable stayed bridge_Powapascokennewick1

Does this sound interesting? If so, you may want to sign up for The Engineering of Structures Around Us, taught by Professor Vicki May in the School of Engineering at Dartmouth (see Prof. May’s article on the Huffington Post describing her MOOC). Class Central interviewed Prof. May and Jared Benedict, a key technical staff member, about the MOOC.

The course is loosely based on a class Prof. May teaches to introduce engineering to non-majors. The MOOC is targeted with a high school audience in mind, but will appeal to anyone who is interested in structures. As Prof. May says:

“My parents go and visit different cathedrals and see different structures, and they don’t really understand what the structure does or how it behaves.”  

No math is required for the foundational track, but there there are optional exercises that require algebra and geometry–you will need to do these exercises if you want to be in the certificate track.

The Best Learning is Hands-On

The best way to learn engineering, especially structural engineering, is through hands-on projects. So the MOOC will have a project every week that students can work on using easily obtainable materials (like cardboard, spaghetti, marshmallows). Some examples of projects:

• making a chair out of cardboard
• using globs of clay on sticks to learn about earthquake resistance
• making a cable-stayed bridge using twine

In fact, the course team is creating some kits with project materials and will send them to 500 randomly-chosen students (domestically, to keep shipping costs low)! So you may be lucky enough to not have to collect these materials yourself. Also, there will be a ‘Share Your World’ exercise where students are encouraged to take pictures of structures around them and share and discuss them in the course.

Innovating and Learning While Teaching

The user will be able to adjust the materials of the column, change it from solid to hollow, and see how different loads will cause it to fail and how it will fail. 

In addition, the MOOC development team is planning to create six simulations that students can use to learn more about structural properties. For example, in the first one students will be able to manipulate a column. The user will be able to adjust the materials of the column, change it from solid to hollow, and see how different loads will cause it to fail and how it will fail. In a sense it is like a fancy calculator, with some visualization.

These simulators will be openly available to anyone after the course. They are being developed for three reasons: to see whether they improve students’ learning, to see whether they are used after the course, and to have them as tools for Dartmouth’s on-campus courses and students. Thus, Prof. May and the MOOC team are able to experiment to learn about pedagogy as well as build useful new tools that help the school’s students.

Engineering is a Creative Endeavor

There is a myth that some people are good at engineering, math, and the sciences, while others are better at more “creative” areas. This is something that Prof. May flatly denies, as she describes below:

It is this type of information that may draw people into engineering fields who otherwise might not even have considered it. It is this kind of education Prof. May is passionate about. Also, as a female, Prof. May is a role model, and wants to encourage more females to get into engineering–incredibly only 14% of engineers are female. She notes that there are a wide variety of engineering disciplines, and some of them tend to appeal more to females, such as biomedical engineering, environmental engineering, and her own field, architectural engineering.

This course will give you a basic understanding of structures, and an introduction to the field of engineering.  

Thus, this course will give you a basic understanding of structures, and an introduction to the field of engineering. Hopefully, through lectures, discussion forums, projects, and simulators, you will be able to get a feel for this field. And keep in mind that engineering and creativity go hand in hand. After all, the main reason cable-stayed bridges are so hot right now is because of the flexibility they offer and the creative ways they can be designed. Prof. May describes her own feelings about this: “I care about the aesthetic very much. I’d much rather work on a beautiful building.” And clearly, she’d much rather create a fantastic MOOC.

If you are interested in learning more about the structures around us, you can take Prof. May’s MOOC The Engineering of Structures Around Us, which starts May 5.


Comments 5

  1. Avatar


    I agree that this type of profession is best taught in a hands-on environment. There’s not really any way you can learn to successfully engineer a structure like a cable bridge or a large building without being able to first learn and test it out on your own project. It’s good to see that those programs and opportunities are becoming available to aspiring engineers.

  2. Avatar


    Thanks for sharing this information about the MOOC on structural engineering. I think it is such a cool thing that Professor May is willing to teach a free engineering course for high school students. Structural engineering is such an important part of our everyday lives– everyone in the country is in a building at some point every single day. That means that these buildings need to be super sound in structure. Hopefully this course will help get more teenagers interested in engineering as a whole too!

  3. Avatar

    Jeff Bridges

    Spreading the force throughout multiple smaller cables is a much better way to support a suspension bridge. I’m studying mechanical engineering, but I’m very fascinated by structural engineering as well. One of the advantages of multiple cables is that you can easily replace some of the cables if service is needed. When it’s a single cable, if something happens to that cable it’s not going to be quite so easy to repair.

  4. Avatar

    Mechanical Engineering

    Very effectively written information. It is going to be worthwhile to anyone who usess it, including myself. Sustain the nice work – for certain i’ll take a look at extra posts.

  5. Avatar

    civil engineer

    Thanks for sharing about MOOC. Thanks for sharing about the structural engineer .Effective article you have written.


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