When I imagined college lectures, I thought of huge auditoriums, blackboards, and a single professor lecturing in front of the class as students scramble to take notes.
While this is similar to what many of my lectures look like, one of my classes looks a bit different. This week, in my MEAM 101 (Introduction to Mechanical Design) lecture, about sixty college students sat on the floor building walls out of three thousand wooden blocks with about five hundred bouncy balls scattered on the floor. After the wall-building was complete, the class split into groups on either side of the room, started loading our recently created catapults with multi-colored bouncy balls, and engaged in a fierce battle to knock the other team’s wall down.
Though this isn’t what every MEAM 101 class looks like, we’re always working on something different and interesting during the week. The class introduces students to mechanical design through the Solidworks software, laser cutting, and 3D printing. It’s an elective for mechanical engineering students, but many students taking the class aren’t even in the engineering school, and students are spread across all four years.
MEAM 101 is one of the classes I’m most interested in, but also probably the class that has challenged me and pushed me the most. One of the main premises of the class is that you learn by doing – with most of the projects assigned (making a fidget spinner, a pulley, or a Penn crest), we aren’t shown or guided through how to make the object. Instead, we’re expected to learn through trial and error, experimenting and trying out new methods, with plenty of office hours to go to if we need in a push in the right direction. This strategy is different than it was in many of my high school classes, but I’ve found it’s made me learn much faster; each week, I’m able to accomplish something I wouldn’t have been able to the week before. The projects are posed in a way that makes you think critically, breaking down a seemingly impossible task into smaller and more manageable steps. How can I make a fidget spinner actually spin? How will my catapult work? For our next project, we’re taking apart real, wind-up toys with moving parts and constructing an entire model using Solidworks. At this point, I’m not even sure how to start, but we’ve done enough for me to know that no matter what it is, I’ll figure it out.
Beyond learning the techniques of constructing and building these objects, we’re also encouraged to use our creativity. Each homework assignment allows us to give the objects own unique flair, whether it’s through the colors or materials we choose to build with or adding extra elements to an otherwise plain object. For our last project, our guidelines were simple: build an object with press-fit using at least two different materials. Technically, we could have made a plain box and met the requirements. But I chose to construct a Jeep with my last name on the license plate; others in my class constructed airplanes, palm trees, volleyball courts, and even a guillotine. One of the things I love about students in Penn engineering is that they go above and beyond the class requirements, truly caring about the projects they’re working on and striving to make them the best they can be.
I’m still not completely decided on majoring in Mechanical Engineering, but I’m so glad MEAM 101 has been my first introduction to engineering. It’s not the concrete, hard skills that are the most important things I will gain from this class, but the problem-solving, critical thinking, never-give-up attitude of an engineer that I know I’ll have to use in whatever field I go into.