Teaching students to think small, quickly

March 27, 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 college, but aren’t taught how a material’s response to forces at larger scales relates to its structure and mechanisms at the atomic level. The problem Buehler faced was finding a way to teach students to model the material’s atomic response without getting too caught up in the complexities of a computer program.

This is where Ceraj and the OEIT initiative came in. “We are looking to reduce the operational fog and help students focus on the subject they are learning without stumbling over new software tools,” said Ceraj.

Buehler and Ceraj employed a web interface called GenePattern, award-winning software developed in 2004 by a team at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to help scientists perform gene expression analysis. Ceraj created an interface between GenePattern and the software code Buehler uses in his own research. The interface, a derivative application that Ceraj calls StarGP, provides a simple-to-use, yet very accurate tool for modeling the behavior of materials under extreme loading.

“We are expanding StarGP’s use in different fields: civil and environmental engineering, materials science, and biology,” said Ceraj. “Each discipline has different challenges, but it provides us wi