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A Very Different Kind of Startup

In the Pacific Northwest there is a very different kind of startup emerging in the shadows of Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing. Hardware is being built, software is being written, and deadlines are being made (and sometimes missed). But this startup in Tacoma, Washington is not fixed on competing with their friendly giant neighbors to the north. To the contrary, its “employees” aspire to work for them one day. That’s because this startup is no company at all. Rather it’s a high school that just completed its first year.

The School of Industrial Design, Engineering and the Arts, better known as iDEA, runs on an innovative concept that invites local businesses into the school as a partnership. Working as mentors or adjunct instructors, these “community partners” work directly with the students in a project-based learning framework. The projects may range from developing software apps, to wooden boats, to bicycles, to guitar pedals. One look around the reconfigured gymnasium packed with CNC machines, lathes, and countless other tooling equipment and it’s easy to see how serious they are. They are going to build stuff — lots of it!

iDEA Gymnasium

As professional engineers and project managers we understand the value of simulation in product development — speed time to market, minimize hardware prototypes, fail fast, etc. Educators also see benefit as the concepts being taught in the classroom can be reinforced by computer simulation. As an application engineer and education enthusiast, it was clear that ANSYS had a role at iDEA, and I could not resist the temptation to see where we could take it. With no real plan at all other than six enthusiastic freshmen (still learning physics), I put together a six-class crash course on engineering simulation hoping to get some insight on how receptive eager students would be to simulation. The results were astounding and nothing short of inspiring. Here’s what we did:

For inspiration we started with YouTube — because what high school kid doesn’t want to watch YouTube in class? I found this video of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse (a.k.a. Galloping Gertie), and thought it might be a good ice breaker (and the eerie music made for dramatic delivery!).

To start all I did was ask questions. Why is it moving that way? Why is it now twisting? Why did the deck finally come down? What could have been done differently? I found other videos that described the failure and seemed to verify some of the student claims. We then moved on to discuss the space shuttle Columbia tragedy. One video featured a Fluent simulation of heat transfer on re-entry due to the leading-edge puncture and missing heat tiles. Seeing an ANSYS product in the video was unexpected, and a positive reinforcement of the applicability of simulation. One student asked me to pause the video and go back to the chart. She was shocked at the extreme temperatures generated by supersonic airflow. This set up a discussion of physics and engineering disciplines. How can fluid flow affect heat? What does a mechanical engineer study?  What is a thermal engineer? What is a fluid? Is air a fluid?  Class was over before we could even turn on the computers.

Next class, after a very informal and off-the-cuff overview of finite elements analysis (FEA), I had them fire up ANSYS AIM for the first time. Within ninety minutes (I timed it!) each one of them had built their own version of a bridge and ran through a complete modal analysis of it. They had no formal instructions in front of them and had never been exposed to ANSYS software — just me saying “do this, now that…” as I did my best to run from one student to the next to help. The student who needed the most help was the one too impatient to wait for me.  When asked if they enjoyed this type of work, I heard one claim “this is awesome!” — a claim validated by the others. No one was left behind, and they all truly enjoyed it.

modal analysis

Going into the third class I found myself in the unexpected position of running out of material and needing more. Late at night I stumbled onto an interesting technical paper entitled “The Failure of the Tacoma Bridge: A physical model”, that emphasized the importance of the interaction of wind with the oscillating bridge — especially in vortices formed above and below the bridge deck. This was it! Next class, the students completed their first fluid analysis as they attempted to reproduced some of the images we saw in the paper.


The class now seemed like it was on autopilot. In the remaining weeks, the students completed pre-built AIM examples including multiphysics applications involving an electrical fuse and a dynamic analysis of an aircraft engine bracket. Mixed in between the hands-on examples we had many side discussions about Newtons Laws, the difference between geometry and mesh, scientific notation, boundary conditions, numerical computation vs. analytical computation, work flow, what kind of engineer should they be when they grow up? and more. We looked up job postings in Washington and saw that SpaceX and Facebook were looking for engineers who had skills in analysis — specifically identifying ANSYS in the recommended experience section — more reinforcement for them that this was real, and worth their time.

With the 2017/18 school year just underway, the school has doubled in size as the incoming freshman bump the sophomores up (there are no juniors or seniors yet). The expectations are also higher. As the school prepares to submit a proposal for the 2018 Shell Eco-marathon, simulation will be integrated into the project curriculum — designing, building, and validating a fuel-efficient car.

Through the Engineering Computer Lab, students will conceptualize their designs and test them against the laws of physics – on a computer. They will be doing this with the design exploration suite, including the new Discovery Live product — the most groundbreaking real-time simulation capability ever released. The design, engineering and manufacturing teams will be forced to work together, immersed in real-world situations where designs may be rejected, revised, improved, or all together scrapped. They will learn life skills that will propel them into college or a valued trade and onto a meaningful career. And to think, they will do this all before entering the 11th grade.

iDEA Students

Jera summarized the benefits of engineering simulation succinctly by saying “…in real life there is no CTRL-Z” (the “undo” command).