Engineering Academy Students Use WPDM to Push Full-STEAM Ahead
Phillip Keane posted on March 21, 2017 |
Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy students push CAD limits to realize projects.

The Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (DPEA) at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, Calif., runs a four-year specialized education program that focuses on preparing students for careers and further study in STEAM fields. The academy, founded by mechanical engineer Amir Abo-Shaeer, has 400 students enrolled at any given time, and enjoys a 50 percent female enrollment for its STEAM program.

What is STEAM? I hear you ask. STEAM is STEM plus arts, and the grade 9–12 students at the academy are getting a fair-sized dose of both aspects during their four-year course. In addition to the traditional STEM subjects such as physics and engineering, students at the academy are also taught classes in visual and performing arts that will provide them with a more holistic (and some might say human) view of engineering projects.

Anyone who has studied engineering or physics will likely have noticed that they are largely male-dominated fields. spoke with Abo-Shaeer to get the lowdown on the importance of addressing the gender imbalance in STEM, and how incorporating arts can make these fields more accessible to all.

“Regarding the addition of art into STEM, we find that the extra dimension of aesthetics acts as a bridge that makes technical subjects more accessible and interesting to those students who have not previously felt connected to engineering,” said Abo-Shaeer. “STEAM speaks to both boys and girls, and the gender diversity in our program makes for a dynamic learning environment. Men typically dominate fields of engineering and design, and we have found that our gender-balanced student body consistently yields richer and more creative solutions to problems due to the interplay of different perspectives. This experience is important for all involved: it is empowering for women to establish their voices in a male-dominated field, and it is transformative for men as they work collaboratively with women and see the benefits of that collaboration. It’s a win-win situation.”

Some of you more pragmatic engineers may still remain unconvinced about the benefits of including art in a technical syllabus, but remember that the union of art and engineering in a Venn diagram often yields projects that are both functional and aesthetically attractive. We like stuff that works, and we like stuff that is beautiful. We like beautiful stuff that works even better.

Artists conceptualize an idea (and then engineers tell them why their vision is too expensive), there is compromise, and then an idea becomes reality via engineering. If only we could get engineers and artists to speak some sort of common language. And that is where STEAM comes in.

Figure 1. STEAM in a very simple nutshell.
Figure 1. STEAM in a very simple nutshell.

In terms of the course, DPEA ensures that students are speaking this common language by setting a number of annual projects that are geared toward increasing their knowledge of STEAM, and culminating in a final year mechatronics “capstone project.”

In grade 9, students are shown the basics of CAD design in SOLIDWORKS. This first year teaches students about simple 2D sketch geometry, basic features such as extrusions, and later, more advanced functions such as defining sketches with relations. The students then design items that will be fabricated in the course’s machine shop class (e.g., a piece of jewelry or six-sided die).

In grade 10, students build on their earlier knowledge by working on a sculpture project. This project teaches students the basics of creating attractive CAD models, which introduces more advanced aspects such as configuration manager. The students learn the relevance of bill of materials (BOM) and technical drawing as the project heads for manufacture.

By grade 11, students have enough knowledge to begin the design and manufacture of a kinetic sculpture. The students learn to use motion study in SOLIDWORKS, which allows them to see how their sculpture will appear in motion. The parts are then formed with CNC machines, and then assembled to produce the final deliverable.

Figure 2. A junior-year kinetic sculpture.
Figure 2. A junior-year kinetic sculpture.
Figure 3. Kinetic sculpture drawing and BOM.
Figure 3. Kinetic sculpture drawing and BOM.

By the final year, students are equipped to embark on what is referred to as the “capstone project.” The capstone project is designed to utilize all of the skills from previous years in a project focused on real-time collaboration. A recent project has not only yielded a rather attractive and functional art installation but also a collaboration with industry, resulting in a research paper.

In the project, dubbed “The Carousel of Physics,” students were to design an educational kinetic sculpture. To ensure that students were collaborating in real time, DPEA used SOLIDWORKS Workgroup PDM to track and convey any changes in their design data.

DPEA realized that because the senior projects are more complicated in terms of BOM and assembly, it would need a formalized system to keep a track of the many parts that would undergo revision during the project life cycle. The carousel project, for example, contained 50,000 parts.

DPEA saw that SOLIDWORKS Workgroup PDM was the ideal solution for this task, and went about implementing it. The attempt to implement Workgroup PDM into the capstone project became a project within itself.


The goal was to allow 100 SOLIDWORKS users to collaborate on shared CAD models in real time (while working on the main capstone project itself).

In examining the PDM solutions available to them, the academy found the following trade-off:

SOLIDWORKS Enterprise PDM was ideal for its number of concurrent users and database size. The downside, however, was that implementing the software was beyond the academy’s budget.

SOLIDWORKS Workgroup PDM was “not ideal” based on the number of concurrent users and database size. But on the positive side, the school automatically had this solution available as the package is unlocked and available for free to holders of SOLIDWORKS educational licenses. 


DPEA teamed up with Intel Corporation to utilize Intel Cache Acceleration Software (Intel CAS) and to eliminate the speed-of-access issues that had resulted from the trade-off.

The collaboration resulted in DPEA successfully running Workgroup PDM on an environment of 100 users, on over 60 workstations and in three workspaces. Not only that, but DPEA released a research paper on exactly how it accomplished this and what the benefits were. You can find the paper here for further details.

In summary, the academy has found that by implementing Workgroup PDM it has made some pretty impressive gains.

By using Intel CAS and Intel Data Center PCIe SSD, DPEA has improved read and write times to SOLIDWORKS Workgroup PDM by 25 percent.

This reduction in read and write times, according to DPEA, has resulted in 495 hours of time saved each year from a team of three CAD engineers. For the average hourly rate of a CAD engineer ($47.03), that translates into a savings of $23,279.85 per academic year (33 weeks). This yielded a ROI of 1063 percent.  And it was calculated to cost just $2,000 to implement Intel CAS in a similar environment. 

Figure 4. Load time metrics with the Intel CAS system.
Figure 4. Load time metrics with the Intel CAS system.

In addition to the more tangible financial benefits, it has also allowed students to spend less time waiting for assemblies to load during work, freeing up their own time for other tasks. The CAD engineers also have that newly freed time to focus on what is important—namely, furthering the quality and innovation of the curriculum.

So, that’s how the academy and Intel used SOLIDWORKS PDM to get more from less. Process optimization benefits all—from the engineers and the syllabus itself to the students.

Figure 5. The Carousel of Physics assembly.

Figure 5. The Carousel of Physics assembly.

Capstone Project

Back to the capstone project, The Carousel of Physics was a kinetic sculpture project that was comprised of one large console that was divided into 15 sectors, with each sector representing a science theme. Those 15 sectors were divided into 60 subsector assemblies.   

The entire installation features over 100 mechanisms and a network of 40 microcontrollers.

The Carousel

During operation, steel balls are released from the central hub of the console. When a ball reaches one of the hubs, it triggers the demonstration.

THE CAROUSEL OF PHYSICS at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from Bria Maeda Little on Vimeo.

In this Goldbergian contraption, the ball not only serves as a mechanical trigger for each hub, but as both narrator and actor for the story as well. At the end of each segment, the ball returns to the central hub and a new ball begins the next segment: 

HEAT SECTOR - The Carousel of Physics from Bria Maeda Little on Vimeo.

Each year, the students present their installation at the Bay Area Maker Faire before moving the installation to a more prominent location. In the case of The Carousel of Physics, it was displayed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for the wider public to enjoy. 

“The whole premise of the course is to create products that the students can take home after the semester has finished,” said Abo-Shaeer. “The projects that we work on are designed and manufactured so they look like professionally made products. When the students show the projects to parents and friends, the parents are pleasantly surprised at the build quality and the aesthetics of the product, and that creates a dialogue that you maybe wouldn’t get with a traditional engineering school project. Engineering projects tend to be fairly dry and sometimes abstract. We like to think we are breaking that mold by creating products that are fun for students of all backgrounds to engineer, and products that can be enjoyed by all when they are finished.”

So, there you have it. Each intake of students learns about art, design, management and manufacture, and at the end of each year are rewarded with seeing their ideas realized as a tangible, physical product.

In terms of the future of the academy, it plans to add software development to the grade 12 syllabus, and to evolve the final year from a capstone project to a capstone experience.

DPEA hopes to offer a “Comprehensive Product Development Experience” that will provide exposure to every facet of the product life cycle, from business case and design, right up to build, launch and closeout. From the looks of it, it is pretty close to achieving that already.

SOLIDWORKS has sponsored this post. It has provided no editorial input. For more information, go to

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