Innovative Use of Computer Tools in Teaching Structural Engineering Applications

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Matrix Structural Analysis and Finite Element Method: Theory and Applications are technical elective courses offered by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) at the undergraduate and graduate levels, respectively. The Matrix Structural Analysis course covers the analysis of different two-dimensional (2D) structures using the stiffness matrix method; namely 2D spring systems, trusses, beams and frames. It also covers some special topics in the structural analysis, including inclined supports, fast reduced analysis of rectangular frames, the solution of stiffness equations using banded matrices and the modelling of temperature loads on structures. As a result of the nature of the covered subjects, students are requested to pass two main courses before being eligible for registering in the Matrix Structural Analysis course. These prerequisites are Structural Analysis I and Introduction to Programming. The former prerequisite covers traditional techniques for solving simple statically determinate structures using manual calculations. It also includes influence lines of moving loads, deflection analysis using geometric and energy approach, and introduction to indeterminate structures using slope deflection and moment distribution methods. Meanwhile, the latter aims at providing the concepts of programming with Visual Basic language using VB 6.0 compiler. The Matrix Structural Analysis course subjects are covered in about 15-16 weeks with two sessions per week. Each session is about 110 minutes composed of 20- to 30-minute mini-lectures followed by student problem-solving activities on the learned concepts.

At the graduate level, the Finite Element Method: Theory and Applications course is considered as a continuation of the basic concepts of stiffness method offered in the Matrix Structural Analysis course. In other words, no specific prerequisites exist for that course given that all basic concepts of structural analysis and programming have been offered at the undergraduate level. The course covers the principles of theory of elasticity along with the compatibility equations and constitutive relations. It also introduces the virtual work approach and its application to conduct finite element formulation of various basic and advanced elements such as: bar, beam, frame and isoparametric solid elements, in addition to plate and shell elements. Most of the graduate students of the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department are full-time practitioner engineers and therefore the graduate course topics are covered in weekly single-sessions for about 15-16 weeks. The typical session is about 180 minutes composed of 50- to 60-minute mini-lectures, followed by student problem-solving activities and applications on the covered material.

The teaching and learning environment and infrastructure in the Faculty of Engineering at UAEU played a significant role in the teaching approach implemented in this study. Since every student in the Faculty of Engineering is required to buy a laptop (an admission requirement), there is no need to reserve PC labs for such courses. A classroom equipped with wireless network, an LCD projector, a projection screen and tables is typical. Blackboard (Electronic Course Management System) is used by the instructors to publish the course material, to receive students' solutions for the assignments and exams, and to communicate with the students.

It should be noted that the main learning aims of the two courses are to help the students to learn and use the matrix structural analysis and/or the finite element approaches to perform the structural and stress analysis of structures. To employ Excel and Visual Basic for Application (VBA) tools to analyse realistic large-scale problems in contrast to abstract ones used mainly for teaching. Nonetheless, any tools that may be used by the instructor or by the students to aid the students' learning process are to be used without losing the focus on the main target outcome and mistakenly concentrating on the aiding tools themselves. …