Teaching students to think small, quickly

March 26, 2007

By Denise Brehm
Civil & Environmental Engineering

Civil engineers by tradition are concerned with the big picture, but some are refocusing their vision, zooming in to solve minute problems we can’t see with the naked eye, like tiny fractures in polymers, silicon or the molecular structure of proteins.

This work involves understanding the mechanics of a material -- its ability to withstand pulling, twisting and heavy loads -- at the atomic level. But the classroom technology for teaching this in a short timeframe doesn’t exist, until now, that is.

An educational experiment during IAP demonstrated that students can learn to apply sophisticated atomistic modeling techniques to traditional materials research in just a few classes, an advance that could dramatically change the way civil engineers learn to model the mechanical properties of materials and provide enormous benefit to industry.

“Taking an atomistic approach to the study of materials’ design and analysis offers opportunities for making significant improvements in materials’ strength, reliability and sustainability,” said Markus Buehler, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who collaborated with Ivica Ceraj, a software developer in MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT), to prepare the new simulation techniques.

“While scientists often rely on quantum mechanics in their study of materials, engineers tend to use a more traditional continuum approach that relies on empirical parameters to model processes such as a crack forming, without considering the mechanisms at the atomic scale that give rise to these phenomena,” said Buehler.

However, a fracture in a concrete bridge doesn’t begin as a long, jagged scar; it starts off as a vibration at the atomic scale and progresses.

Engineering students usually study typical weight-bearing problems during their first years in col