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The Multimedia Finite Element Modeling and Analysis Tutor


Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering University of Massachusetts Amherst


Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering University of Massachusetts Amherst


Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering University of Massachusetts Amherst


Department of Computer Science University of Massachusetts Amherst


This prototype interactive software system can help teach upper level undergraduate and graduate students in mechanical engi- neering fundamental concepts and offer guidelines for finite ele-

ment modeling and analysis (herein referred to as FEA). In lieu of

a mathematical treatment of the subject commonly found in text-

books, this FEA tutoring system employs rich animations for con- veying highly visual concepts and offers the user a set of experien- tial modules for exploratory learning. The system has been

developed initially for the domain of linear structural analysis, but

it can be expanded to include other engineering analysis domains,

such as vibration, heat transfer, and nonlinear finite element analy- sis. Initial formative testing of the tutor on junior mechanical engi- neering students indicates that a 45-minute session with the tutor was at least as effective as a one-hour introductory lecture by an

FEA expeI.


The process of designing and manufacturing products has tra- ditionally been fractured into three broad groups. One group con- sists of designers who are knowledgeable in drafting, CAD, design guidelines, standard components and modules, existing product designs, and “back-of-the-envelope” engineering analysis skills. Toolmakers fit into another category, being knowledgeable about designing the molds or tooling needed to create the parts as well as the speed and cost of production using such a mold. In the third group are specialized engineering analysts knowledgeable in sophisticated computer-based analysis concepts and techniques, such as finite element analysis (FEA), that can be used to simulate

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the behavior of real-world products and manufacturing processes. This compartmentalization of knowledge and practices results in a time-consuming, costly iterative process that places U.S. manufac- turing at a competitive disadvantage. More often than not, comput- er-based analysis of designs is simply not carried out early in the design process. This occurs despite the fact that simulation tech- niques, such as FEA, are mature technologies with well-established comprehensive commercial software products currently on the mar- ket. Designers simply do not have the time to “throw their proposed design concepts over the wall to the analysis group” and wait for simulation results. Engineering analysts often fail to fully grasp time constraints driven by brief market windows of opportunity that design engineers constantly face. Consequently, an engineering ana- lyst will tend to devote a large amount of time and computational resources developing highly complex finite element models when less accurate, rapid-feedback analysis results would suffice. The net result is that FEA usually takes place after hard tooling has been committed or after the product has failed in service in an effort to understand why the product failed. Despite the fact that FEA has become the world’s most widely used numerical technique for predicting the behavior of complex physical systems, it is not typically taught in the undergraduate engineering curriculum. There are two principle reasons for this deficiency. The first is that the introduction of new material into the curriculum by modifying existing courses or by creating new courses typically requires the removal of other material from the curriculum. Often this material is deemed essential by the faculty and ABET. Also, while FEA is taught at the graduate level in mechanical, civil, and aerospace engineering departments, gradu- ate-level FEA courses are designed to teach the underlying math- ematical theory (Ritz Variational Method, Method of Weighted Residuals, etc.), numerical techniques, and to a lesser extent com- puter software implementations. Such courses prepare students to use FEA in research projects or to develop FEA algorithms and software codes. However, these courses are not designed to teach fundamental modeling principles and guidelines that design engi- neers and industry need to effectively use FEA to address real- world design and manufacturing problems. Consequently, undergraduate engineering curriculum give only minimal attention, if any, to teaching finite element analysis. Companies are forced to spend considerable time and money training newly hired engineers. However, the engineers attending these workshops are primarily taught the semantics involved in using a specific commercial finite element code, not the more important modeling concepts and guidelines required for effective utilization of FEA as a design evaluation tool. To enable design and manufacturing engineering students to readily grasp and absorb the key concepts and guidelines involved in finite element modeling within the confines of the existing

Journal of Engineering Education


engineering undergraduate curriculum, we have developed a pro- totype interactive finite element modeling and analysis tutor. In lieu of a mathematical treatment of the subject commonly found in textbooks, this FEA tutoring system employs rich animations for conveying highly visual concepts and offers the user a set of experiential modules for exploratory learning. 1-3 The FEA tutor does not seek to replace existing commercial finite element tools. Rather, students who use the FEA tutor are introduced to the basic concepts of finite element modeling and analysis. These concepts and guidelines conveyed by the FEA tutor could then be practiced by students when using any commercial or in-house finite element tool. Thus, the learning goal is for the student to understand basic FEA modeling principles such as feature reduc- tion, the application of symmetry, and component isolation by the proper application of loads and kinematic constraints. With these concepts learned, students will be able to make the proper analysis modeling assumptions that form the foundation upon which effi- cient and sufficiently accurate finite element models of engineer- ing systems are built.


Cognitive studies of instruction have shown that learners must remain active and motivated while learning from computer-based educational systems. 4-7 Students must want to learn, be involved, and be active and challenged to reason about the material present- ed. Frame-oriented or storybook teaching that is simple presenta- tion of text, graphics or multimedia, no matter how flashy, is too passive; learners press buttons for the next page, albeit the next page is a video or sound or image. Frame-based teaching can fail to be effective due to its inability to customize teaching for a stu- dent. Learners are not typically in charge of their learning, and such systems are not supportive of their users. Yet, even this sim- ple computer aided instruction has been shown to raise average student performance. 8 Multimedia tutoring systems have been shown to respond flex- ibly and be effective with students. 9-12 Properly designed computer based tutors have achieved the two-sigma effect , which is the same improvement in learning that results from one-on-one human tutoring over classroom tutoring. 13 Several success stories have described students learning in one-third to one-half the time it takes for a control group to learn the same material. 14 In one example, undergraduate students using a Lisp tutor at Carnegie Mellon University completed programming exercises in 30 per- cent less time than those receiving traditional classroom instruc- tion and scored 43 percent higher on the final exam. 15 In another case, students working with an Air Force electronics troubleshoot- ing tutor for only 20 hours gained a proficiency equivalent to that of trainees with 40 months (almost 4 years) of on-the-job training. 11 In a third study, students learned general scientific inquiry skills and principles of basic economics in one-half the time required by students in a classroom setting. 14 Drawing upon much of the research noted above, the Departments of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts have devel- oped prototype interactive software systems that would tutor engi- neering freshmen on design for manufacturing (DFM) concepts.

512 Journal of Engineering Education

To accommodate the use of these stand-alone tutors as education-

al resources, the first-year engineering curriculum was restructured

with the introduction of a required course focusing on manufac- turing engineering. 16 The manufacturing tutors form an engineer- ing multimedia tutoring system that consists of four modules:

injection molding, stamping, die casting, and forging. Within these manufacturing tutors, students design, build and rotate manufactured parts and features in three dimensions, and the tutor advises them about the difficulty or expense of manufactur- ing the part based on the geometry’s complexity. Currently, proto- types for the injection molding, stamping, and forging tutoring module* have been completed and are in the educational evalua- tion testing phase. 17,18


As noted previously, cognitive research shows that students learn best when they are actively engaged and motivated in the learning process. This is the learning paradigm that guided the development of the manufacturing tutors, and consequently we

have selected this model of learning for the multimedia finite ele- ment modeling and analysis tutor as well. Currently, the tutor employs a number of experiential modules that are interwoven within a “storybook” that introduces the user to basic FEA con- cepts and guidelines. The storybook uses graphics and animations when necessary to present this material to the user. At the end of each storybook section, the concepts presented are reinforced with an experiential module that the user must complete before moving on to the next storybook section. The storybook material is divided into three primary sections:

• Introduction

• Modeling

• Discretization.

The Introduction module describes in general terms what FEA

is and when it should and should not be used. No experiential mod-

ule is associated with the Introduction. An example of an Introduc- tion graphic used in this section is presented in figure 1.

The Modeling section consists of three separate subsections:

Model Isolation and Constraints, Symmetry, and Feature Reduction. These sections, which constitute the bulk of the FEA tutor, cover fundamental modeling concepts that are often over- looked by FEA textbooks. The Model Isolation and Constraints

section of the tutor teaches the student component isolation from

a larger system and the proper application of loads and boundary

conditions to both kinematically constrain the component to pre- vent rigid body motion and load the component so that deforma- tion can occur. The experience of the authors lead them to believe that the application of proper kinematic constraints seems to be one of the most difficult concepts for undergraduate students to grasp. This may in part be due to the fact that kinematic boundary conditions represent a higher degree of abstraction or idealization than force boundary conditions. Bodies interact with one another via forces, not by kinematic constraints. For example, a zero-dis- placement translational constraint represents an interface between the system to be analyzed and an infinitely stiff, reacting body. The module first introduces the student to the concept of a kinematic constraint diagram, which is contrasted to the concept of a free body diagram taught in engineering statics. Animations

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Figure 1. Examples of two sequential introduction screen graphics.

Figure 1. Examples of two sequential introduction screen graphics.

are used to show students why an object lacking kinematic con- straints yet in force equilibrium still possesses rigid body modes of motion and what constraints are needed to prevent all modes of rigid body motion. The Model Isolation and Constraint section concludes with an experiential module that engages the student to determine the proper isolation and application of loads and boundary conditions to a component. The example problem selected for this lesson is the crank, connecting rod, and piston assembly shown in figure 2. The tutor defines the analysis prob- lem as stress analysis on the connecting rod. The first task the stu- dent must accomplish is to determine which component in the assembly should be directly modeled and which components can be either represented in terms of equivalent boundary conditions that interface to other modeled component or can be neglected altogether. Figure 3 shows the selectable menu window that pops up when the component is highlighted. Once the student has iso- lated the proper component, the student’s second task is to specify the proper boundary conditions to apply to the component (see figure 4). The student submits his or her responses at the end of each task for evaluation. Currently, the tutor feedback is limited to pass and fail evaluation responses for each individual choice the student has made. In future versions, the feedback would include evaluation responses that offer hints to the students (based on

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their responses) to help them understand how to model the con- necting rod, kinematic boundary conditions, and loads properly. Once the student has successful passed the experiential Model Isolation and Constraint Module, the model Symmetry module is initiated. Using a cookbook recipe analogy, the storybook explains to the student that symmetry models require three fundamental ingredients: geometric symmetry, material symmetry, and bound- ary condition symmetry. Different kinds of symmetry are present- ed to the user, such as axisymmetry, repeating symmetry, and plane stress and plane strain symmetry. The Symmetry module concludes with another experiential module that tests the students understanding of the symmetry concepts presented to them. A number of problems are presented to the student and the student must correctly identify if symmetry exists and, if it does exist, the type of symmetry must be identified. An example graphic from this experiential module is shown in figure 5. The storybook then proceeds to the concept of feature reduc- tion and elimination, which are also reinforced by the third expe- riential model. In this module the student is taught the impor- tance of making simplifying assumptions to neglect geometric fea- tures that are not relevant to the specific FEA problem posed to the student. Figure 6 shows the test problem used for the experi- ential module. The fourth and final experiential module is the Discretization module. Here, the educational objective is to teach the basic ele- ment and node concepts, and the fact that the finite element solu- tion is an approximate one. Since discretization is closely coupled to the concept of convergence, both of these concepts are taught in this module. The experiential part of this tutor presents the stu- dent with a predefined model, loads, and boundary conditions. It then asks the student to determine the necessary level of mesh refinement required for the solution of interest (i.e. maximum deflection or stress) to converge to within a specific tolerance of the exact solution (see figure 7.) Since the exact solution is not known, the student must iterate from the possible choices of mesh refinement levels and observe the trend of the analysis results towards an asymptotic value. Results for all possible mesh refine- ment levels are stored in the tutor database. The tutor plots the solution item of interest versus mesh refinement level in a win- dow, as well as the estimated cost of each analysis and the cumula- tive analysis costs (see figure 8.) The student is critiqued based on the total analysis costs and mesh refinement level the student believes is necessary for convergence.


The effectiveness of the FEA Tutor was measured in a prelim- inary test case in a junior-level mechanical engineering class at the University of Massachusetts. Twenty-five students with no finite element experience were split into two groups. The first group attended their regularly scheduled 45-minute class lecture, which was devoted to teaching the basic concepts of finite element mod- eling and analysis. Meanwhile, the second group ran the FEA Tutor in a PC-based classroom and did not receive any other for- mal finite element modeling and analysis instruction. Both groups were then given identical modeling exercises as a homework assignment. The exercise involved modeling a cylindrical stainless steel

Journal of Engineering Education


Figure 2. Test problem in Modeling Experiential Module.

Figure 2. Test problem in Modeling Experiential Module.

Figure 3. Pop-up menu for selecting, equivalent modeling, or ignoring component.

Figure 3. Pop-up menu for selecting, equivalent modeling, or ignoring component.

Figure 4. Pop-up menu for specification of loads and boundary conditions at component interfaces.

Figure 4. Pop-up menu for specification of loads and boundary conditions at component interfaces.

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Figure 5. One of the symmetry problems presented in the Modeling Experiential Module.

Figure 5. One of the symmetry problems presented in the Modeling Experiential Module.

Figure 6. The feature reduction part of the Modeling Experiential Module.

Figure 6. The feature reduction part of the Modeling Experiential Module.

Figure 7. Discretization convergence curve based on user input.

Figure 7. Discretization convergence curve based on user input.

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pressure vessel and cap (see figure 9) for two different end cap attachment methods. The first situation presented the end cap as

Figure 8. Discretization convergence curve based on user input.

Figure 8. Discretization convergence curve based on user input.

mated to the pressure vessel with a continuous circumferential weld, while the second method described the end cap as bolted to the flanges to the tank using a uniform 18-bolt pattern. For each case, the students were asked to sketch out the FE models they would employ to study each end cap attachment configuration. Particular areas of interest were the appropriate geometry to con- sider, the applied loads, the applied boundary conditions, and rec- ommendations on techniques of mesh gradation and convergence assessment to assure a sufficient level of accuracy with minimal computational expense. An informal evaluation of student responses was performed, considering the application of appropriate forms of symmetry, boundary conditions, loads, and discretization. Preliminary results showed that the students that used the FEA Tutor performed 30 percent better than those that attended the traditional lecture. It should be noted that the tutor was tested on only one class of undergraduate students without a formal evaluation technique. However, additional formal testing is scheduled in the next phase of the tutor development, pending the approval of project fund- ing.

Figure 9. Modeling problem used for formative testing of the tutor.

Figure 9. Modeling problem used for formative testing of the tutor.

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Journal of Engineering Education


One of the benefits of the preliminary testing was to provide feedback on the methods used to convey the subject matter to the students. In particular, it was found that neither the FEA Tutor nor the class lecture adequately conveyed the concept of trans- forming the physical system into an appropriate set of load and boundary conditions. However, the students who used the FEA Tutor performed well in reducing the geometry through symme- try. The preliminary testing, therefore, showed an indication of the strengths and weaknesses of the teaching methods applied to each subject matter. This feedback is being used to direct improvements in a future version of the FEA Tutor.

for financial support of this project. EASNE is a TRP-funded collaboration of regional engineering programs. See http://www.egr.uri.edu:80/ne/ for more details.


1. Zienkiewicz, O.C., and R.L. Taylor, The Finite Element Method,

Fourth Edition, Volume 1 Basic Formulation and Linear Problems, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1989.

2. Cook, R.D., D.S. Malkus, and M.E. Plesha, Concepts and

Applications of Finite Element Analysis, 3rd ed., John Wiley, New York,





Burnett, D.S., Finite Element Analysis from Concepts to Applications,

Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1987.

The FEA Tutor is available as prototype software in the form


Fletcher, J.D., “What Have We Learned about Computer Based

of a self-executing projector file created by Director that is com-

Instruction in Military Training?,” NATO Research Study Group, RSG

patible with PC systems. It can be downloaded using FTP proto-

16: Workshop on Lessons Learned, 1995.

col from the node medo1.ecs.umass.edu. FTP logon under the


Regian, J. W., and V. J. Shute, “Evaluating intelligent tutoring sys-

account name NSFFEA with the password the same as the account name. Get the file featutor.zip using the FTP get com-

tems,” Technology Assessment in Education and Training, edited by E.L. Baker and H.F. O’Neil, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1994, pp. 79-

mand. Then use WinZip to extract all the files contained in the


zip file to the same directory on a local Windows 95 or Windows


Seidel, R.J., and R.S. Perez, “An Evaluation Model for

NT PC. The tutor is launched by double-clicking the executable file, featutor.exe.

Investigating the Impact of Innovative Educational Technology,” edited by E.L. Baker and H.F. O’Neil, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1994, pp. 177-208.


7. Shute, V. J., and J. W. Regian, “Principles for Evaluating

Intelligent Tutoring Systems,” Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, vol. 4, no. 2/3, 1993, pp. 245-272.

Development of the Multimedia FEA Tutor is an ambitious


Fletcher, J.D. “Does this stuff work? Some Findings from

effort. It was our hope to offer the student, after the FEA intro-

Applications of Technology to Education and Training,” Proceedings of

duction “storybook” and its associated small experiential modules, a more complete FEA exploratory environment. We were only par-

Conference on Teacher Education and the Use of Technology Based Learning Systems, Society for Applied Learning Technology, Warrenton, VA,

tially able to achieve this objective in the scope of this six-month


project. Part of the problem lies in the fact that virtually all of the


Anderson, J.R., C.F. Boyle, and G. Yost, “The Geometry Tutor,”

educational material in this area, including textbooks, articles, jour- nals, etc., are highly mathematical in their pedagogical presentation

Proceedings of the Ninth IJCAI, Los Angeles, Morgan Kaufmann: San Mateo, CA, 1985.

of the material. There is no known source that attempts to teach


Lajoie, S., and A. Lesgold, “Apprenticeship Training in the

the subject in the nonmathematical manner that we have described. In contrast, our multimedia manufacturing tutors for injection molding, stamping, and forging were based on an already known, proven, and readily available design-for-x methodology. 17,18

Workplace: A Computer-Coached Practice Environment As a New Form of Apprenticeship,” in Intelligent Instruction by Computer: Theory and Practice, edited by M. Farr and J. Psotka, Taylor and Francis, New York, 1992, pp. 15-36.

Consequently, a good part of this six-month effort has been devot-


Lajoie, S., and A. Lesgold, “Apprenticeship Training in the

ed to determining the specific concepts and procedures to teach and how to teach these concepts with a minimum amount of

Workplace: A Computer-Coached Practice Environment As a New Form of Apprenticeship,” Machine-Mediated Learning, vol. 3, 1989, pp.

mathematics. These concepts and procedures are currently being


modified to improve the overall effectiveness of the FEA Tutor. In


Woolf, B., “AI in Education,” Encyclopedia of Artificial Intelligence,

the final version, the FEA Tutor will track the student’s knowledge

2nd ed., John Wiley, New York, 1992, pp.434-444.

and skills by modeling the domain and the student’s responses. It


Bloom, B.S., “The 2-Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of

will contain diagnostics to identify common errors, and it will

Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring,” Educational

adapt its responses and content to student needs. We expect it to

Researcher, vol. 13, 1984, pp. 4-16.

incorporate multiple tutoring strategies and reason dynamically


Shute, V.J. and R. Glaser, “A Large-Scale Evaluation of an

about how to respond to the idiosyncrasies of a particular student.

Intelligent Discovery World: Smithtown,” Interactive Learning Environments, vol.1, 1990, pp. 51-77.


The authors would like to express their appreciation to the Engineering Academy of Southern New England (EASNE)

516 Journal of Engineering Education

15. Anderson, J.R., “Analysis of Student Performance with the Lisp

Tutor,” Diagnostic Monitoring of Skill and Knowledge Acquisition, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NY, 1990.

16. Poli, Corrado, “Engineering Communication Skills and Design

for Manufacturing,” Manufacturing Education for the 21 st Century: Volume

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III, Preparing World Class Manufacturing Professionals, Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Dearborn, MI, 1996, pp. 327-331.

17. Woolf, B.P., C. Poli, I.R. Grosse, E. Haugsjaa, and B. Riggs,

“Multimedia Tutors for Design for Manufacturing,” Proceedings, 1996 Frontiers in Education Conference, IEEE, 1996.

18. Riggs, B., C. Poli, and B. Woolf, “A Multimedia Application for

Teaching Design for Manufacturing,” Journal of Engineering Education,

vol. 87, no. 1, 1998, pp. 63-69.

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Journal of Engineering Education