How to Prevent Free Student Simulation Software from Becoming “Shelfware”
Meghan Brown posted on June 13, 2016 |

It’s common practice these days to introduce students to professional grade simulation software by making free or discounted versions available in universities and colleges.  Increasingly, the trend is moving toward grounding students in software even earlier, at the high school level.

The benefits are clear, since learning these simulation software programs early makes students more likely to use them when they move into a professional engineering career.

However, when student software is first made available, there can be some hurdles to ensuring that students are being taught how to use the software correctly and effectively.

ENGINEERING.com had the opportunity at the USA Science and Engineering Festival to speak with Paul Lethbridge, academic program manager at ANSYS, about the company’s initiatives to get software into schools, and providing strategies to ensure that teachers can provide effective education with these software platforms.

How to Avoid “Shelfware”

Many university professors will already know how to use the major simulation software platforms, either from their own education or from time spent working as a professional engineer.  

But professors, and even teachers at the high-school level, need to be able to successfully teach their students how to use simulation software effectively. Unfortunately, high school teachers are less likely to have the computer aided engineering (CAE) experience that university and college professors do.

So what are some strategies to ensure that teachers know how to use and teach the software, so that it doesn’t just sit around unused even though it’s available for free?

According to Lethbridge, this is a common problem companies face with all types of customers: “How do you avoid shelfware?” 

Companies can give schools as much software as they want, but if they don’t provide the right training and support for it, then it’s going to sit around unused by all save the seriously inquisitive. 

“That’s how I got started with ANSYS 30 years ago,” said Lethbridge.  “I arrived in the US at my new job, and there was a big box with a lot of ANSYS yellow folders, and I went, “What’s this?” and just dug in.”

But this is the exception, not the rule. There will always be companies and educational institutions that buy software but never use it. That’s why ANSYS backs up its software program with training.

Screenshot of ANSYS AIM simulation software, one of the platforms for which ANSYS plans to offer a student version available to university and college students.

Screenshot of ANSYS AIM simulation software, one of the platforms for which ANSYS plans to offer a student version available to university and college students.

The company offers different levels of support for users, such as professors at universities. They also have self-guided training available online for the public, where interested users can go to the ANSYS website and download example tutorials and even a free student product.  Resources also include how-to guides, and tutorial videos to get new users started. 

For an actual customer that has acquired a campus-wide solution, Lethbridge explained, “We actually have a customer portal where for the software, you can go in and download upgrades to the software.  But there are  richer training materials there for them, and there’s technical support that they can use online to provide support or receive help installing, configuring and mentoring and guidance.”

This is where the partnerships for academia come in. ANSYS partners with professors to develop curriculum materials and courses and also collaborates with textbook authors.

“We basically provide the software, provide them training and have them develop their curriculum in the modules,” said Lethbridge.  One example is a recently launched massive open online course (MOOC), developed jointly with professor Rajesh Bhaskaran at the Sibley School of Engineering at Cornell University. 

“It shows how to use simulation, how to think like a professional engineer. Basically, it is teaching people how to use the software effectively and not think of it like a ‘black box,’ because if you don’t know what you’re doing; it’s ’garbage in, garbage out’,” said Lethbridge. “And it’s very difficult to avoid that.”

“So this course, it’s free of charge and anybody can sign up, whether they are six years old or sixty years old.  It’s intended for graduates and undergraduates and also high school students who are thinking about going to university and want a foundation in engineering,” Lethbridge added. “But that’s just an example of the materials we’ve developed in conjunction with our academic partners, to make sure this software doesn’t end up as shelfware.”


Making Simulation Education Easier for Teachers and Students Alike

What else can be done to make it easier to teach these software programs to students, especially those in high school or younger?

Popular options revolve around releasing simplified versions of the software, or creating simulation apps to make it easier to learn, and help avoid the “garbage in, garbage out” effect. Could these strategies make it easier on both the kids and the teachers? ANSYS currently plans to follow a phased-in strategy for these education resources. 

Screenshot of ANSYS SpaceClaim simulation software.

Screenshot of ANSYS SpaceClaim simulation software.

“At the moment, we have a free student product that offers the full-on commercial-grade solvers and front end, without any filters in it,” said Lethbridge. “It is free of charge, but it’s not necessarily something a ten-year-old kid could install and configure very easily. Some do, they surprise us, but not everybody could.” 

Lethbridge also spoke about ANSYS’ plans for later this year. ”We’re going to have the products we have in the booth here, SpaceClaim and ANSYS Aim, and we are going to have student versions of those products available.  Technically they are already developed, but you’ve got to get them deployed, and that’s coming later this quarter.” 

ANSYS isn’t currently working towards creating a streamlined version of their software to reduce the “garbage in, garbage out” risk. However, this could be in their future.

“Longer term, I would absolutely like to see us develop an application, something that when I get my cell phone out, like everybody does in these situations, there is an application I could download and run, to get some sort of basic understanding of the fundamentals of engineering and simulation through the app experience.”

For more information about ANSYS and teaching simulation in schools, check out the article “Simulation and the World of STEM Education.”

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