Simulation: The Indispensable Tool

This engineering classroom must-have will help tomorrow’s engineers solve today’s most pressing problems.

Dassault Systèmes has submitted this article.

“Tell me, I forget. Teach me, I remember. Involve me, I understand.” 

-Xun Kuang, Chinese Confucian philosopher (312-230 BC)

Because simulation, connected by real data and information, reflects in virtual space that which exists in real space, engineering students can see things as they are and visualize things as they might be.

In the classroom, simulation fosters deep learning, that is understanding, as opposed to surface learning that only requires memorization. Simulation lets students test, validate, and modify designs before they would become physical prototypes. Simulation can help drive design, speed time to production, identify and eliminate costly design mistakes, and de-risk decision-making.

“One of the ways as an industry we’re going to rapidly innovate, and I think we do need to rapidly innovate, is not only through consortiums and through collaboration, is by de-risking,” Dassault Systèmes Geovia CEO Michelle Ash said during a 2021 industry webinar on mining electrification.

“One way we can de-risk is to try things in the virtual world before we have to try them in the real world,” Ash continued. “So, literally if you can look at what having a battery electric vehicle might do to your mine plan, your mine design, your workshop setup, your resource recovery, etc., or if you can understand how a battery is going to work within the fleet of trucks you’re going to retrofit or just replace with a different battery, what the benefit of that is going to be, and be able to simulate that in the virtual world, or create a virtual experience, even better, so people can really understand what that’s going to look like, then I think people are going to feel more comfortable. They can truly stand up in front of boards and executive committees … and be able to say, ‘I am confident that these outcomes will be driven by these investments.’”

How Students Learn

By their very nature, instructional simulations require active learning; students are not passive participants. Before simulation even starts in the classroom, educators begin the process by actively engaging in student-student or instructor-student conversations. Students must select parameter values, anticipate outcomes, and formulate new questions to ask. A good simulation is constructed to include an extension to a new problem or new set of parameters that requires students to extend what they have learned in an earlier context.

Students learn to examine their own thought processes. A well-constructed instructional simulation includes a strong reflection summary at the end of a project in which students reflect on and think about how and why things behaved as they did.

A Classroom Must-Have

Airlines have long required pilots to log simulator hours. Electrical engineers conduct simulations on a daily basis to check load requirements. The Pentagon simulates potential conflicts. Medical students learn on plastic patients programed to exhibit all manner of symptoms in rapid succession, and health educators use entertainment style games and simulations to construct effective learning environments in the classroom and online.

A recent meeting of the International Association for the Engineering Modelling, Analysis, and Simulation Community (NAFEMS World Congress) generated a number of recommendations, including greater emphasis on design-centric approaches that reduce the level of expertise required to do simulation. Proponents advocate making it easier to use simulation tools to drive design decisions as opposed to just using it for analysis.

The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (SERC) in Northfield, Minnesota, offers a module on teaching with data simulation that helps students understand that scientific knowledge rests on the foundation of testable hypotheses.

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Old Dominion University offers a four-year undergraduate program in Modeling and Simulation Engineering that prepares students to create a concept or a design and test it in real-world conditions through graphical and mathematical models, virtual reality simulations, software development, and data analysis.

The United States Department of Education awarded a $1 million-grant to faculty of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Iowa in early 2022 to develop artificial intelligence, modeling and simulation (AIMS) programs that bridge the gap between models and simulations based on physics and vast quantities of data associated with real-world properties.

Teaching with Simulation

Simulation supports the scientific method, including the importance of model building. Instructional simulations give students concrete formats of what it means to think like a scientist and do scientific work. This includes the ability to observe the relationships among variables in a model or models. Simulation tools such as Dassault’s SIMULIA software package allow students to change parameter values and see what happens. Students develop a feel for what variables are important and the significance of magnitude changes in parameters. Simulations help students better grasp probability and sampling theory by matching simulation results with analytically derived conclusions.

Educators committed to helping their students cultivate problem-solving skills understand that simulation requires intensive pre-simulation lesson preparation, according to reports in Pedagogy in Action, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. However, it’s worth the effort, because research shows that simulation can be very effective in stimulating student understanding.

For example, the integration of CAD and simulation in the 3DEXPERIENCE platform from Dassault Systèmes facilitates the creation of virtual laboratories that visually reinforce fundamental theory and expose students to advanced topics in a controlled setting. Students learning fluid mechanics will be able visualize flow separation while studying how airfoil shape influences the stall angle. Instead of analyzing the stress in a single component, students can use technologies like general contact and pre-tuned solution procedures to evaluate complex assemblies. Students with more expertise can experiment with complex physical responses, such as explicit dynamics, material failure or complex turbulence modeling.

Simulation tools in the classroom help foster thought processes that can be extended across a wide range of engineering disciplines to include economics, sociology, political science and environmental sciences. This is crucial to engineering students’ education, because all of those sectors must be addressed to meet enormous challenges the world faces at a time when time is running out. The work is already underway.

Simulating the Planet

On December 15, 2021, three European Union agencies and the European Commission signed contribution agreements to begin the first phase in mid-2024 of an ambitious program to develop a highly accurate digital twin of the Earth by 2030. The program, called Destination Earth (DestinE), seeks “to monitor the effects of natural and human activity on our planet, anticipate extreme events and adapt policies to climate-related challenges.”

“Through the unprecedented observation and simulation capabilities of DestinE, empowered by Europe’s HPC computers and AI capacity, we will be better prepared to respond to major natural disasters, adapt to climate change and predict the socioeconomic impact,” the commission said on its website.

Phase 1, led by the European Space Agency (ESA), will develop a core service platform to provide evidence-based decision-making tools, applications and services based on an open, flexible, and secure cloud-based computing system. It will coordinate data and cloud infrastructures to provide access to an increasing number of digital twins as they become gradually available. 

Phase 2 involves a data federation process to create a Data Lake which consolidates all pre-existing European data from the time of Copernicus as well as data holdings from the ESA, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT).

Phase 3 establishes digital replicas of highly complex planetary systems, including oceans and biodiversity, and consolidates multiple digital twins in simulations that seamlessly fuse real-time observations and high-resolution predictive modeling.

Time will tell as to the impact this level of simulation will have on human ability to adapt to rapidly changing forces of nature and society. What is certain today, however, is that simulation is the future of engineering.