3D CAD Software is Effective Tool for Engineers of Tomorrow

SolidWorks is powerful enough for advanced engineering, but easy enough for middle-schoolers.

SolidWorks Corp. has solemnly pledged to make its 3D CAD software as easy to use as possible. One way to measure progress is to look at who's using the software. SolidWorks 3D CAD software, which has helped the world's most accomplished engineers produce designs like artificial hearts, the arm for the Mars "Spirit" Rover, and cars at the famed Skip Barber Racing School, is now easy enough to make the world's youngest product designers productive from day one, according to teachers.

Starting in sixth grade, for example, technology education students at Brookside Middle School in Sarasota, Fla., and Sun Prairie (Wis.) Area School District use SolidWorks Education Edition software to design racing cars, airplanes, boats, and, soon, solar vehicles. "Even the 11-year-olds are quite capable using SolidWorks to design basic, fully functional products from start to finish," said Brookside technology education instructor Patrick Haley.

If a student changes a dimension -- wheel size, engine placement, etc. -- the design automatically adjusts without forcing a redesign of the axle, chassis and motor mounts. SolidWorks software's belt and pulley capabilities display the results in live motion, adjusting the belt size automatically. When students design sheet metal engine brackets in SolidWorks, the software creates a flat pattern that students lay on their work tables and consult as they snip, bend and punch. "SolidWorks drives home basic math and physics principles students have learned in other classes," said Haley. "Mastering the design gets them excited to move on to the building phase."

Haley is now developing a curriculum in which students will design model cars with fully active solar panels. Students will use SolidWorks software to explore the effects of different panel angles on power, drag and part interference. "Whatever we're doing in SolidWorks, they can't wait to get to class," he said. "We have to chase them out in the end."

"Students keep exceeding what I ask them to do," said Andrea Krull, technology and engineering education instructor. "I have sixth-graders accomplishing eighth-grade objectives, forcing the district to review curricula to accommodate student progress. Students clamor for free drawing periods in which some have actually reverse-engineered their iPods -- from memory. We're growing engineers here."

Although sixth grade sounds early for engineering education, it's actually right on time, according to Al Gomez, engineering instructor and career/technical education coordinator at Sun Prairie. For developmental and other reasons, students' minds are particularly open at sixth-grade -- more so than in the latter years of high school. "This is the best time to get students -- particularly girls -- confident in their abilities," Gomez said. "As a nation, we're losing engineers in general and females in particular. Early success can help us set a new course."

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