Simulations were used in lecture-based courses, Thermodynamics I and Thermodynamics II, for demonstration purposes and as digital assignments. Digital assignments were separate from the customary pencil & paper homework given once a week. The primary objective was to model the flow and heat transfer in a system, reinforce theoretical concepts, and allow study of more complex two- and three-dimensional problems.

Students encounter fluid flow and heat transfer in the sophomore course, Thermodynamics I, for the first time. Velocity, pressure and temperature fields are quite complicated even for simple geometries, hard to visualize, and difficult to understand. Digital assignments go beyond basic theoretical concepts and relatively simple pencil & paper problems. Initially, there were 6 digital assignments in each course. After the first offerings and assessments, the number of assignments is expected to grow to 8–10. Scaffolding of digital assignments ensured that simulations gain in complexity as students become more familiar with both the theoretical underpinnings and the software interface.

Our Mechanical Engineering program, has a freshmen graphic communication course incorporating AutoCAD and a junior CAD course with SolidWorks and Ansys. This provided both a challenge and an opportunity for lecture-based thermo-fluids courses positioned ‘in between.’ Modern computational skills were obtained outside the classroom, and that was accomplished with effective use of an on-line environment. Ansys Fluent was chosen to present and reinforce thermo-fluids fundamentals. Each digital assignment had a mesh, detailed grading criteria, and supplementary documentation. Students worked on the: (1) problem set up in the preprocessor-stage, (2) solver, and (3) postprocessor. This approach helped students (1) understand the flow and heat transfer inside the system as well as the application of conservation of mass and energy, (2) understand and interpret results by comparing them with theoretical and experimental data, (3) develop modern technical skills relevant to the demands of Industry 4.0, and (4) develop research capabilities.

Simulations in the classroom and as digital assignments are a representation of the real world, and provide an egalitarian and unrestricted way for students to interact with it, acquiring skills and an appreciation for subject matter as well as the engineering profession. Semester long discussions on various aspects of digital assignments help develop a mentor-mentee bond. This approach to teaching, research and mentoring does not depend on access to laboratory facilities and funding that can reach only a limited number of students. It encourages students’ spirit of inquiry, and ultimately leads to a professional development opportunities beyond the classroom setting.

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