Professor Ajay Karakoti taught a ‘Materials Science’ course at Ahmedabad University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, while his friend and colleague, professor Harshal Oza, taught one on the ‘Strength of Materials’. Finding themselves joking around at lunch one afternoon, they realized that each was currently teaching a batch that had already taken the other’s course. The conversation began in jest, the two of them making comical jibes about whether the other had properly trained their students. Soon however, both professors began to see the prospects of an exciting collaborative project at hand, and they began to earnestly sound it out.
The content of both their courses were closely interrelated, and since each batch was already versed with part of the material, wouldn’t it be interesting to combine their sessions and organize a single, hands-on, project-centred module? Moreover, wouldn’t it form an interesting pedagogical experiment, for it would combine 3rd and 7th semester students to collaborate and put into practice what they had thus far largely engaged with at a theoretical level? Although there was a chance it could go awry, both professors believed it was worth taking the plunge.
Thus, they devised their new integrated course. During their brainstorming, they realized that there were two instruments integral to their subject that the university did not possess. A Universal Testing Machine (UTM) which tested the tensile strength of different materials, and a Charpy Impact Testing Machine (CITM) which measured their brittleness. The two professors decided the project they would assign their students would be to design these very instruments from scratch.
Soon enough, they presented their plant to the University, received approval and set the wheels in motion. They divided their class into fourteen groups of seven members each. Half of these groups would work on building the Universal Testing Machine, while the other half worked on the Charpy Impact Testing Machine. From the onset, the instructions were clear: the students had to use what they had learned to envision and execute the entire production process; from the theoretical design, to choosing the kind of materials, making the first rough sketches and putting their final machine together. It was also ensured that there was sufficient uniqueness in each group’s designs, and the students were told that they would have to build their prototypes up to scale and attempt to make them really work; they would not accept toy models.
This was an intimidating mandate, but the professors were also clear from the very start that the final product would carry the least weightage in their assessment. Rather, what mattered was how the students approached the entire process. They would be evaluated not on whether their final machine worked well, but on their teamwork, their innovativeness, their ability to make the appropriate calculations and 3D models and so forth. In short, the professors said, the students ought to have no fear of failure.
This attitude worked wonders and the course went on to be an indisputable success. The feedback the professors received paid testimony to the student’s enthusiastic responses. A recurring refrain from the 7th semester was that this project had served almost as a ‘rite of passage’ for them. It was a perfect way for them to culminate their education, and actually experience what it meant to be an engineer. It gave them a sense of fulfilment and a new confidence as they entered professional life. Even the 3rd semester students, far from being overwhelmed, found the experience of working with their seniors to be extremely rewarding. They learned a lot from their peers, and they too felt that the project helped them clarify their understanding as well open up new horizons for their approach to mechanical engineering. If that weren’t enough, the University has gained from this endeavour too, for although not all the protypes were successful, several of them worked really well. These student-made instruments are now part of the School’s laboratory equipment and are going to be employed in a series of courses in the future. In fact, professor Oza already has plans of working with another batch to automate these prototypes as an exercise in his Robotics course.
Overall, the course has been a vital and rewarding experiment, one that captures the spirit of innovative pedagogical practices that Ahmedabad University propounds. It has sparked new inspiration and confidence among both teachers and students, and we are likely to see a number of exciting new collaborative endeavours in the near future.