5-year teaching veteran turns to Mathcad
“Mathcad doesn’t offer the barriers of a structured programming language – the natural language of mathematics is right there, and always lets you know when there are problems. The error messages are helpful and your calculations have a natural feel.”
Professor Bob Lucas has been teaching and learning at Lehigh for his entire career, from undergraduate to graduate student to associate chair, all in the Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics department. You might think that this could have led Professor Lucas to develop entrenched thinking and stagnant ideas about teaching, but that is certainly not the case. In fact, Professor Lucas stays current in his work as a researcher and instructor using computers to aid design work, prototyping and calculations. One of his tools of choice is Mathcad.
Professor Lucas first got the idea to use Mathcad in the early 1990s teaching freshman engineering. An introductory engineering methods course historically combined two programming environments, one structured and one high level. Mathcad was offered as a companion to the structured language to help students with the numerical methods involved. Now, students at Lehigh use Mathcad in a variety of courses in the department, including kinematics and dynamics of rigid bodies and a machines course.
“Mathcad is great for carrying out non-linear calculations because there’s no programming,” Professor Lucas said. “You don’t have to go to another product for graphical output – your numerical and graphical output are right there in one medium. Plus you get text, graphics, anything you want – it’s so flexible.”
Student response to using Mathcad has always been positive, and Professor Lucas has always been pleased that teaching students to use Mathcad doesn’t consume valuable class time.
“It’s so easy to demonstrate what you’re getting with Mathcad. It doesn’t inhibit learning the way some software does, and it has all the power of those other applications. I give students my templates and they modify them for their own use. It’s no big deal to learn.”
In addition to teaching with Mathcad, Professor Lucas uses Mathcad in his own research.
“I had some optimisation work to do and I just picked up Mathcad,” he recalled. “It was so quick and easy… and powerful. You don’t just look at ‘what if,’ you can look at ‘what’s best.’ That’s terrific.”
He also likes the document interface: “Mathcad allows you to form professional documents that have live variables embedded in them. Those documents can be used to investigate different scenarios right in the page.”
Professor Lucas worked in industry for a while, but always came back to Lehigh. “I’ve done fracture mechanics work, bioengineering, design engineering, and now I’m really interested in computer-aided instruction and using computers to assist with design. We work with lots of different CAD systems, even as a beta test site for cutting edge modelling software. We want to give students top of the line products for design and analysis.”
Professor Lucas hopes that students get as much out of Mathcad as he has over the years, and that they’ll use the software when they go on to careers in industry. “I tend to go out of my way to introduce the software to seniors or graduate students, now. That way I make sure they know about it before they leave!”