Bending Virtual Sheet Metal: UMass Amherst Researchers Study How Engineers Visualize Manufacturing Processes

AMHERST, Mass. - Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have received a three-year, $450,000 grant from the General Electric Fund''s "Learning Excellence" program for a study that will explore the visualization and spatial reasoning skills required of engineers.

The idea for the study was born four years ago when engineering and computer science professors at UMass collaborated on creating multimedia-based software, a "tutor," that leads engineering students through various stages of manufacturing. "The tutors were designed to help students visualize what was taking place during manufacture of a part," said Donald Fisher, principal investigator for the study and a professor in the mechanical and industrial engineering department. The software enabled students to take a virtual sheet of metal and transform it into a final part, but it "visualized the process for them," Fisher said. "The engineer needs to visualize all the steps of the transformation to truly understand the manufacturing process."

So together with researchers from the computer science and psychology departments, Fisher and other engineers decided to study whether people''s ways of visualizing might be influenced. They''re using a sophisticated eye-tracker used to study automobile drivers'' reflexes. The eye-tracker will offer clues on how students do visual tasks. The ultimate goal of the study is to teach engineering students other ways to visualize the manufacturing process. Several area schools where engineering is taught will help test the new software, including Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, Springfield Technical Community College, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

The ways that students visualize becomes even more important when gender is brought to bear. "Women have a more difficult time performing the visualization tasks we''ll be studying," Fisher said, and he''s hoping that new strategies could even the field for young women interested in becoming engineers. "We want students to have an understanding of how various geometries are created," said Corrado Poli, mechanical and industrial engineering. "We want to find out what''s going through a person''s mind when they look at a design or tutorial. What do they see? Can we come up with a [software] tutor that trains students how to visualize?"

"Clearly this study is one of the better ones at assessing whether students are learning and how they''re learning," said Stephen Tucker, program manager of higher education grants for the General Electric Fund. The GE Fund''s "Learning Excellence" program focuses on learning at the university level in the fields of business and engineering.