Fall-Winter 2014 Norton

  • Norton's students learn engineering can be fun

    Learning engineering can be fun

Terri Norton, associate professor of architectural engineering in the Durham School, uses he formats from television game shows and carnival contests as teaching platforms for structural dynamics classes.
In some college classes, students can easily feel stressed with heavy workloads, complex subjects and rigorous tests and quizzes.

One bad score and you might Press Your Luck and put a whole semester’s grade-point average in Jeopardy.

That’s why Durham School associate professor of architectural engineering Terri Norton uses easily recognizable games, such as the formats from television game shows and carnival contests, as teaching platforms for her structural dynamics classes.

“It’s a conscious effort. I do problems that are in the textbook, but I want to make it more practical,” said Norton. “Dynamics can be a complicated subject when you think about all the principles of classical mechanics, but if you can relate it to something you’re used to, that makes it easier to learn. That’s what I try to do in my class. Sometimes we play games, like Press Your Luck or a Dynamics Jeopardy to prepare for a test.”

The lower pressure felt in the class, Norton said, helps keep her students involved and interested.

“It helps with the engagement. The first thing when I go over the syllabus in class, they see the project is on the schedule. You’re not required to do a project in dynamics, but, to me, it helps them put into practice what they’ve learned,” Norton said.

“The first thing they ask is, ‘What’s our project going to be on this year?’ I’ve done catapults, water balloon launching competitions, we’ve had pinball machines, lift systems.”

The idea for developing carnival games grew from resource materials that Norton uses in her class.

“We were studying collision impacts and I was showing them the games with the hammer. I showed a video of someone who wins all the time at carnival games and he was showing all the tricks behind winning. We talked about projectile motion as it pertains to the ball toss,” Norton said. “It kept coming back, so I thought we should do something like that for our project because it would allow them to think about dynamics and have fun.”

Last spring, Norton split the students in both sections of her dynamics class into teams, which picked from a list of carnival games Norton provided – among them: Skee Ball, Putt N Win, High Striker, Ring Toss and Swing Bowling.

The teams then learn the principles of dynamics by learning how the games work, explaining the dynamics at play in the game and the best strategies for winning.

“If they were using this High Striker game, they had to explain how much force the hammer has to apply to the surface for the impact, how far or how fast the collar moves before it hits the bell,” Norton said. “If they did a pinball machine, they had to talk about the impact of the levers, about how the ball would travel around the game.

“Then they had to come up with an example problem. If I had this game as a problem in class, what would I have to solve for? With the High Striker game, it could be figuring the force of the hammer. For the (miniature) golf game, it could be solving for what angle the incline surface needs to be for the ball to roll the necessary distance.”

When the projects were completed, Norton’s classes made carnival games and set up a makeshift Midway in the atrium at The Peter Kiewit Institute in Omaha and invited the faculty, staff and students to play the games.

The event was so well-received that Norton is looking to expand on it in the spring semester of 2015.

“We got so many good reviews from the carnival that I want to make it a little bigger this year,” Norton said. “Since I have two sections, maybe I can reserve our big event space and try to do all the projects on one day and encourage the whole college to participate. We can also invite folks from outside the College of Engineering to play.”