Engineering for beginners

Author: Ed Cohen


It’s a pleasant sunny October afternoon and the freshmen in Ed Maginn’s Engineering 111 class are out on the South Quad firing softballs at him. In a calculated way.

The course and its spring-semester companion, Engineering 112, have been developed over the past two years as a way to introduce potential engineering majors to the field’s various subdisciplines and get them excited about the profession.

The softball exercise seems to be doing both, as teams of four cluster around catapults set up in the grass. The devices utilize surgical tubing and a leather pouch to launch the balls. A teaching assistant reads out an arbitrary target distance, then team members consult a mathematical model they’ve worked out ahead of time.

Theoretically, and if they’ve correctly factored in variables like the energy in the elastomer, they’ll know how far to pull back the tubing and at what angle to set the release to make the ball fly the desired distance. They’re given only a few minutes to do this.

Further down the quad, Maginn, an associate professor of chemical engineering, stands bravely in the line of fire, planting small flags, like those used to mark underground utility lines, where the balls land. As he acknowledges, variables like wind resistance keep even the most scrupulously worked out models from scoring a bull’s-eye every time.

“We’re trying to teach them about models, and models should be predictive,” says Maginn. “But no model is perfect. Engineering is about uncertainty.”

Students get plenty of opportunities to learn by doing and sometimes failing in Enginering 111/121 (the course sequence is required of all freshmen intending to major in engineering). Besides launching softballs, they design and build a data scanner to read bar codes and stripes, a system for neutralizing acid waste, and a lightweight truss structure out of Lego-like pieces. (For the softball exercise, the class originally used water balloons and human targets, but the balloons’ flight was unpredictable and they often broke apart on launch.)

To anyone passing by on a launch day, Engineering 111/112 looks like fun. And it is, but it’s also a lot of work, students say.

“We’re here at the Learning Center [a combination computer cluster, library and lab in Cushing Hall] every night, but we enjoy it. It’s worth it,” says freshman Joe Schulster.

“Honestly,” chimes project teammate Brien Hughes, “we learn a lot.”

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.