Engineering Simulation MOOC teaches pro skills

Using a tablet and stylus, MOOC instructor Rajesh Bhaskaran can write on a virtual blackboard while recording a video lecture.

Still image from a simulation of a wind turbine rotor. Colors show how much the metal is deformed as the blade rotates.

Cornell’s newest MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) will give thousands of students worldwide an opportunity to learn skills that are regularly taught to the university’s undergraduate engineering students on campus.

The course, “A Hands-on Introduction to Engineering Simulations,” launches June 1 and will run for six-weeks on the edX platform, a consortium of several universities created to distribute MOOCs.

The course is free but does not offer college credit. However, students who successfully complete the course can get a certificate of achievement from Cornell and edX for a fee.

Students will learn to create physics-based simulations of how a proposed design would work in the real world – an essential step before building a physical prototype – using a version of software regularly used in industry. The course participants will have access to a free download of the student version of simulation software from ANSYS Inc., which they will use to work out real problems; examples include a bolted rocket assembly, a wind turbine rotor and fluid flow in an artery.

The course represents a step toward “the democratization of simulation,” according to Rajesh Bhaskaran, senior lecturer in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Swanson Director of Engineering Simulation, who will teach the course.

“These used to be tools that specialists with Ph.D.s would run,” he said. “The conventional curriculum doesn’t prepare you to use this technology. Companies seek to hire students with these skills.” The course will be useful to college undergraduates, high school students interested in engineering, professionals working in industry and teachers who want to incorporate simulations into their classes, he said.

Along with practical applications, students will get to “look under the hood” and learn more about the mathematical models on which simulations are based, along with fundamental principles of structural mechanics and fluid dynamics.

Bhaskaran has been busy recording lectures for the course in a studio in the basement of the Computing and Communications Center. Students will see on their screens the same PowerPoint slides Bhaskaran would use in a classroom, along with the electronic equivalent of chalkboard scribbling. The lectures will lead students through online exercises and simulation problems they will solve themselves with the ANSYS software. Later in the course, aerospace engineer Andy Sadhwani will deliver a guest lecture on how simulation is used in his industry, and will introduce a simulation that tests the behavior under stress of a bolted component in a rocket. He will show students how to interpret the results from their simulation to determine the margin of safety of the bolts.

The materials Bhaskaran creates for the course will later be made available on SimCafe, a Cornell site providing free simulation resources. Students who complete the MOOC may come to SimCaafe for further learning, Bhasksran said.

The Swanson Engineering Simulation Program at Cornell gives students access to simulation and CAD software and assists faculty in incorporating simulation into their courses. It was established through a gift from John A. Swanson ’61, M.Eng. ’63, founder of ANSYS Inc., which also is sponsoring the MOOC.

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Melissa Osgood