The Unique Challenges of Bringing Simulation to STEM Education

ANSYS offers its perspective on strategies for introducing simulation software to future engineers.

Many corporate initiatives these days are aimed at improving STEM education at the high-school and middle-school levels. Projects that bring professional quality tools and resources into the classroom are essential to these initiatives.

But the way in which resources such as simulation software are introduced to young students can have a significant impact on whether the resources are used effectively.

It is common for student versions of professional-grade software platforms to be available to college and university students for free or at a greatly discounted cost. However, incorporating simulation into education at younger levels presents some unique challenges.

Shawn Wasserman from had the opportunity to speak with Paul Lethbridge, academic program manager at ANSYS, to get the simulation software provider’s take on introducing simulation to STEM education.

Projects, MOOCs and More

According to Lethbridge, teachers and students interested in using or learning to use simulation software can start by simply downloading the free student version of the ANSYS product.  Online examples start out relatively basic, such as beginning with a plain block which the user manipulates to see how that block will behave.

“When you affix that block at one end, and apply a load at the other end, how does it deform? What are the stresses?” explained Lethbridge. “There are some very simple examples in that regard.”

He also mentioned an online MOOC (massive open online course) created by Cornell University. This course, called SimCafe, is available online to anyone interested in learning how to use ANSYS simulation software.

(Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

(Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

There are a number of examples for new users to work with through SimCafe and the MOOC. They start very simple, such as with a basic plate; the user experiments with how a metal plate bends and how this will change if the plate has a hole in it. There are also basic fluid dynamics examples.

“Quite a popular one we’ve seen, which is a little more advanced, is a wind turbine blade,” said Lethbridge.  “How does that turbine blade perform and deform? How does it perform in terms of how much force is created when the wind blows on it, and how does it deform? Is it going to stand up to a gale force wind?”

Building Bridges and Dropping Eggs

There is no denying that questions such as how much force a structure can withstand before being destroyed are great for capturing the interest of future engineers. Many of us can probably remember school forays into engineering principles through the building (and destruction) of popsicle-stick bridges or dropping eggs wrapped in cardboard constructions to—hopefully—keep the shells from cracking.

But these classic projects may not be enough to capture and maintain students’ interest in the current, high-tech world.  This leaves the field open for something more engaging, such as simulation software, to bring new life to student projects.

A young student tests out ANSYS simulation software at the USA Science and Engineering Festival.

A young student tests out ANSYS simulation software at the USA Science and Engineering Festival.

The popsicle-stick bridge exemplifies the classic truss-style structure that is used for bridges and other structures.  “Of course, you can use our software for that,” said Lethbridge.  

“But I think kids today are more interested in designing – the younger generation, definitely – and taking their skateboard or surfboard, and using the software to quickly skin the surface and then stand on that skateboard to see how it bends.”

Previously, it was a matter of availability that determined what educational STEM projects schools could pursue.

“In the past, the actual tools available to students to create something, well, popsicle sticks are easy and cheap, and schools have access to them,” Lethbridge said.  “But these days, with 3D printing and the tools we offer, you can draw things easily, and you can get them printed and test them.  You don’t have to be limited to the stodgy old designs that have been around longer than I have.”

Challenges to Teaching Engineering

While there is a great deal of potential that is promised by the inclusion of simulation tools in STEM education, there are still challenges.

One is the student’s understanding of the software’s user interface, which can be attained through use and practice with the software platform.

The principles behind the software forms a second challenge. “General principles are pretty intuitive for most of the physics,” Lethbridge explained.  “A kid understands that if you have a piece of wood, and you bend it, it will break at some point.  It’s pretty easy to do that.”

The challenge, therefore, comes from understanding and teaching the kids to understand a problem, and teaching them how to pose that question effectively within the software.

“How do you fix that end of the support, and how do you or where do you supply the load?” Lethbridge added.  “It’s really about understanding and educating them about how to couch that problem.”

To learn more about simulation in STEM education, check out the article “Student Versions of SpaceClaim and ANSYS AIM are Cornerstones to New Academic Initiative.”