Commercial Software - A Medium for Teaching 'Life-Long Learning'

W S Venable,EdD,PE

Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering

West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-6101 USA

Proceedings, 1989 Conference on Engineering Design, I.Mech.E, Harrowgate, United Kingdom

In the United States, teaching 'design' includes conveying professional attitudes. One goal is teaching students to continue their technical education in an informal setting. The author uses a 'continuing professional education' model when introducing software to students. The behaviorally based model uses minimal formal instruction with commercial software and documentation. The author and his colleagues have employed this technique in large classes with 'spread-sheet' analysis and graphics, word-processing, and kinematics and dynamics of linkages. Some undergraduate students now use computer-aided drafting and finite element analysis in a self-taught context. The paper contains a discussion of the results to date.


In the United States, assignment to the teaching of 'design' includes the assignment of conveying a wide variety of professional skills and attitudes, as well as specific design skills and practices. (1,2) Among these more or less hidden items on the instructional agenda is the responsibility of teaching students how to continue their professional and technical education in an informal setting after graduation.

How can we meet the responsibility for 'teaching' an ever increasing number of peripheral professional skills at the same time as we are forced to accept responsibility for seeing that students gain experiences with modern computer-aided design methods and still devote sufficient time to fundamental principles of design? One answer lies in integrating multiple objectives into our assignments, and one way to do this is by changing the way we introduce computer methods into our courses.

Let us consider, for a moment, how practicing engineers acquire new skills, computer or otherwise. In a few cases, engineers may return to a university for extensive formal instruction. More frequently, but still rather rarely, engineers may attend a training session lasting several weeks. Most often, engineers will have no more than a day or two of formal instruction on a new technique or a new design tool, followed by an extended period of learning from self-study, on-the-job practice, and informal interactions with colleagues. Both individuals and institutions who provide 'continuing professional education' place great emphasis on formal offerings and instruction, but, in fact, the 'life-long learning' for which students should be prepared is effective primarily when it is based on individual efforts.

In the computer area, it appears that access to any classroom instruction in new software may be the exception, rather than the rule. A computer magazine conducted a survey of over a thousand users of its on-line information service on how they learn to use new software. They found no reliance on classes among their respondents, with most learning coming from reading manuals and experimentation. (3) While the population sampled was a select one consisting primarily of advanced users of personal computers, and might not be representative of engineers assigned to routine tasks and tied to net-worked corporate computer systems, it does reflect the experience of many engineers in a position to initiate the use of new software.

The author is now in his third year of incorporating student use of packaged computer products into both analytical and practice oriented courses. (4) His experiences have convinced him that there are several reasons to use a 'continuing professional education' model when introducing software to students. That is to use minimal formal instruction and to make maximum use of high quality commercial software, and the associated documentation and tutorials. The method relies, in large part, in creating an atmosphere in which the software is merely a tool needed to accomplish an engineering task, rather than something to be mastered for its own sake.

The Model

A theoretical base

The author approaches instruction from a behavioral point of view. (5) His approach begins with the assumption that the primary responsibility of the instructor is to structure circumstances so that students engage in a series of activities which will make them practice the skills to be learned.

Under the behavioral approach, a plan of instruction should exist primarily as a set of student exercises, rather than as a series of topics. Similarly, a text should begin as a set of problems, rather than as a series of lectures. Information and supervision are provided to insure successful completion of the experiences, rather than assigning problems to assure students' attention to the instructor's activities. 'Teaching' may often assist in the learning process, but it is not always required, and should not be the point of departure for the design of a course.

To apply this approach to education to the introduction of computer techniques within existing engineering courses requires that the instructional designer develop a series of assignments which the students must complete with the help of computer software. The first in the series must be of the sort which require only a limited set of the computer package's capabilities, and the assignments must increase in complexity as the course progresses. At each stage, the student is expected to view the program as a tool to make the technical operation more efficient or more accurate, not as an end in itself. Students are given a few hours lecture or demonstration as an introductory 'short course,' then are expected to refer to the documentation for the software, and to informal interaction for most learning. The formal instruction is focused on the capabilities of the software, not on the actual methods of use.

Students are required to become productive almost immediately. They must do so in order to do the analysis in textbook problems, and to complete design calculations or prepare reports.

Reducing the apparent involvement of the teacher in students' acquisition of computer skills is not to belittle the importance of skilled instructional work. In fact, the success of a strategy of 'self-taught' computer use is highly dependent on the proper structuring of the demands placed on students for computer generated results. Thorough mastery of a specific software package will often depend on structuring a series of demands over a period of several years, with the degree of prompting and assistance being reduced as the sophistication of output required is increased. Traditional teacher activities such as consulting with students and marking assignments are frequently important aids in monitoring the process.

The behavioral approach also requires very careful review of the software employed. Students require success for reinforcement of the behaviors being acquired. Assignments must be designed as much with an eye on the probability of successful accomplishment as with concern for technical interest. Design for success must consider the strengths and weaknesses of the documentation and 'user friendliness' as for the power of the program itself.

The 'continuing education' approach also requires that software be carefully reviewed for utility. Within a design sequence, for example, only software which processes data applicable to the designs under study should be aggressively introduced, although, of course, much additional learning about hardware and systems operating software will naturally be involved.

When software needs can be defined in terms of general requirements which can be met with more than one package, students can, and should be given the responsibility of selecting to particular package which they will use.

Under this approach, mastery of specific software procedures, and development of general computer skills are fundamental instructional objectives, but not necessarily announced ones. Students' attention is focused on the 'scientific' or 'engineering' learning, i.e. dynamics or heat transfer or gear selection or cost reduction, rather than on computers or programming.

There is an obvious danger in the behavioral approach that what is taught may be chosen because it is easily taught, rather than because it is important or useful. The same, or similar, argument can also be made about other approaches. For instance, there appear to be cases where lecturers choose their topics because they create a strong impression, rather than for importance or utility. No approach to instruction obviates the need for professional maturity in those setting curricular goals.

Applied Model

The educational context

West Virginia University is a major state owned and financed university offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees in nine engineering fields. The College of Engineering receives a relatively low level of financial support, and the expenditures for computer hardware and software are quite modest.

At the present time, we have roughly 1600 undergraduate students. These students share about sixty terminals without graphics capabilities which are linked to a VAX system and used primarily for FORTRAN programming. In addition, they have access to about fifty IBM PC's and PC/AT compatible machines. Most students use PC's in a stand-alone mode, although a sizable number can access the VAX network. In our third year of PC use, the ratio of over thirty students per personal computer seems to be adequate except at mid-term and semester end when a large number of reports become due.

The College of Engineering makes a large quantity of public domain and 'shareware' software available to students on an optical disk. While this provides students with many useful utilities and recreational programs, only a little has been found which is suitable for serious engineering use.

Students are neither required nor expected to purchase computers. Fewer than ten percent of our students own computers suitable for engineering use. Students are required to purchase computer supplies such as floppy disks, as well as selected programs and/or manuals.

Practical application

In practice at West Virginia University, the instructor begins by identifying those topics within a course on which computer software can help students to make a more rapid or more accurate solution, and the places in which the use of computers can assist students in making better presentations of their results.

The instructor then identifies specific software products, and makes arrangements for providing the products to students. In our university, when the programs are of a general purpose nature, word-processors or spreadsheets for example, this is generally done by requesting that the bookstore stock copies of commercially available 'student versions' of the software and manuals. When the programs are of an expensive and specialized nature, such as CAD or finite element programs, the software is installed on hard disks in university owned computer labs, and manuals are provided on a short-term loan basis.

The instructor then develops a project assignment which includes a clear statement of the requirements for computer use which are associated with the project. This is generally made in writing. When new software is introduced, the instructor usually provides one class (about fifty minutes) in which the general features and operations of the package are outlined in a lecture or lecture-demonstration. Students are the expected to begin working with the package. Student work is most often done on university owned IBM PC/AT compatibles, although a minority have their own computers at their residences.

Instructors also function as consultants. In this regard, they generally adopt the role of a colleague of their students who happens to be an advanced user and who will help find answers to questions, rather than the role of tutor. Usually a class of students will quickly develop their own network for the exchange of such information, so this instructional responsibility is generally of limited duration and it is often focused on problems which are of genuine interest to the faculty involved. As is often true in industrial settings, computer problems develop into a two way exchange of information beneficial to both users.

Student achievement of required competency is usually assessed solely on the basis of the project assignments submitted, and is not marked separately. In rare cases, a few questions about software procedures have been included on examinations.


At West Virginia University the author, and several of his colleagues, have been using this model to introduce personal computers and software in second, third, and fourth year courses. The results described are based primarily on the author's personal experiences in the Mechanical Engineering curriculum, but they reflect the experiences of other faculty in aerospace, civil, electrical, and industrial engineering with several products.

Courses and software involved

At the sophomore level, our experience has been primarily with the introduction of spread-sheet analysis and word-processing, along with basic PC/MS-DOS operations. These second year students are required to prepare project and laboratory reports in two mechanical engineering courses. They are permitted a free choice their word-processing package, but are expected to use a 'Lotus 1-2-3 compatible' spread-sheet. In one course they use the spread-sheet to reduce laboratory data from tests of material specimens and to plot graphs such as stress-strain curves and logarithmic fatigue life diagrams. In the other, they organize and present such things as monthly and annual energy costs and economic paybacks using line and bar charts. During this first year, few students go beyond the use of formulas involving addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, although the graphic capabilities are rather completely explored.

In the third year the author has required all students to individually develop spread-sheets for the analysis of the kinematics and dynamics of machine linkages during each of the past two years. These exercises require students to use the extended mathematical functions available in the spread-sheets. This work has lead to the introduction of spreadsheet analysis of such things as powerscrews, and for the plotting of involute gear tooth profiles.

Already several colleagues within the university have had a few undergraduate students successfully use computer-aided drafting and finite element analysis on special projects in a self-taught context. In most of these cases, the level of program familiarity and skill in usage which the students have developed has far exceeded that of the faculty members directing the project.

During the fall of 1988 the author began the development of a fourth year required course on the design of machine elements in which all students will use computer-aided methods within the context of a traditional course. This will involve assignments requiring computer-aided drafting and finite element analysis, even though the students involved will have had little or no previous experience with the procedures. The use of their previously acquired skills in word and data processing will be required, in addition.

In addition to their use of 'applications packages,' students have routinely developed high skill levels in the use of several programming languages not taught within the formal curriculum. Many engineering students (with faculty encouragement) have made QuickBASIC their programming language of choice for senior level projects in analysis and controls, despite an almost exclusive focus on FORTRAN with the formal curriculum.

Effects on students' attitudes

Our students appear to have a positive attitude towards both the use of computers and toward this method of introducing it. Criticism is more often directed at the producers of specific products than at the faculty members who have required their use. While many students initially pro-offer such excuses as 'I can't type,' the majority quickly attack the keyboards. Only a very few attempt to 'get George to do it' in team situations.

Students are proud of the professional appearance of the work they produce. Their reports on most industrial projects are given directly to the sponsors without additional services from our clerical staff, other than duplication and binding.

It is perhaps surprising to find that students are willing to acquire skills on their own in the face of a general feeling on their part that it is unfair to require learning of information, whether conceptual or factual, without formal classroom presentation. Whether or not this is due to some American perception that any man can master simple tools on his own has not been determined. No particular problem has been observed, however, with our limited foreign undergraduate student population.

Students do not object to any significant extent to being required to purchase software. A survey of third year students conducted last year indicated that many are willing to spend as much as fifty dollars on good software, if it is of general use. Student editions, and clones of many of the most popular and powerful software packages are available at prices ranging from twenty to fifty dollars. Many student purchase additional software which is not directly required for courses.

It is true that there is a significant amount of software exchanged between students in violation of copyright laws, but this is not a situation unique to educational institutions. Faculty using the method described here actively attempt to discourage such practices by declaring the importance of access to full documentation, and by referring many students to their manuals for the answers to operating questions.

Relevance to Industry

It is the author's belief that the model described is related to industrial practice in two ways. One is related to preparing students for industrial reality. The other is guidance for managers concerned with industrial computing.

First, this method of instruction places students in a situation similar to that which many will face in industry. That is, each individual has a direct responsibility for making productive use of computer products. This includes responsibility for software and hardware selection, installation, training, and data interchange. They are practiced in decision-making regarding computation and data processing. Such persons should be much more effective in industrial work than students with 'classical' computer training limited to writing simple high level language programs in a highly structured environment.

Second, the method places students in a position where informal learning, much of it self-directed, increases job productivity and may increase payoffs, in the form of grades. For many students in America, this may be their first experience with such a situation. For some, it may also be the first situation in which they have been responsible for 'professional' learning based primarily on textual references without the guidance of lectures or the stimulation of examinations. Such experiences should help them to prepare for the professional responsibility of maintaining general technical competency.

Third, the experiences of educators with such an approach to computer use should help assure corporate and institutional managers of computing services that flexibility in selection of computers and software need not necessarily result in explosions in training costs. In fact, adoption of a wide variety of products may result in increased productivity if each individual user can select and use those best suited to his individual objectives.


Personal computer use and applications software can be practicably introduced to undergraduate students in a 'continuing education' context requiring minimal expenditure of class time, or direct teaching. Such learning experiences are accepted by students, and prepare them to accept personal responsibility for continuing their technical education informally after graduation.


  1. Venable, W.S., "Developing a Design Attitudes Structure to Support a Capstone Design Course," 1987 International Conference on Engineering Design Proceedings (ICED 87), 1987, 1089-1095 (American Soc.of Mech. Engineers)
  2. Venable, W.S., "Developing Objectives for an Engineering Design Course," Proceedings of the Fourteenth Conference on Frontiers in Education, 1984, 696-699. (Inst. of Elec. & Elec. Engineers)
  3. Anon., Survey, PC Magazine, March 28, 1988, 40-41.
  4. Venable, W.S., "Experiences in Introducing PC's in Undergraduate Courses," 1987 Annual Conference Proceedings, 1987, 1986-1989. (Amer. Soc. Engineering Education)
  5. Venable, W.S., "Developing a Behavioral Approach to Teaching Design," International Journal of Applied Engineering Education, 1988, 4, 237-242.