Using Physical Models in the Engineering Classroom

By Darrell G. Fontane

“People learn more quickly by doing something or seeing something done.”
- Gilbert Highet

Looking for a way to spice up your engineering lectures? How about including physical models and demonstrations in classroom presentations?

An excellent article—An Online Database and User Community for Physical Models in the Engineering Classroom—in the inaugural online issue of Advances in Engineering Education addresses this subject. It contains an excellent list of references and a detailed discussion of the use of physical models in the classroom; I highly recommend giving it a read. Here’s the abstract:

This paper will present information about the Web site —, the process to develop the Web site, the vetting and management process for inclusion of physical models by the faculty at West Point, and how faculty at other institutions can add physical models and participate in the site as it grows. Each physical model has a description of the model, the theoretical background, pictures and/ or video of the setup and use of the demonstration, a parts list (or order location), and building plans, as well as that something extra about where else the physical model can be used, how to elicit greater student insight and bringing drama into the classroom using the model or demonstration. Course assessment data is provided to demonstrate the impact of physical models on student learning.

I believe the use of physical models is an excellent way to help our engineering students understand complex physical processes and encourage you to consider their use within your lectures.

In Colorado State University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, students conduct physical experiments in the lab all the time. For instance, all freshmen design and construct a building frame that is tested to failure on an earthquake simulation shake-table. It’s a very popular project! Why not use models and demonstrations in lecture as well?

Welch and Klosky (2007) have noted that “many of the articles returned during a literature search under ‘classroom demonstration’ on both the ASEE and Compendex search engines dealt with software rather than benchtop-based demonstrations. … [they] were struck by the predominance of simulations as opposed to demonstrations, given that engineering is inherently a hands-on profession” (p. 4).

This can easily be changed. The referenced Hand-On Mechanics Web site—a partnership between the United States Military Academy and McGraw Hill—contains detailed information on how to construct and use the physical models available via the site; it also encourages you to upload models and demonstrations of your own creation.

What a great opportunity to share with your colleagues something that works well for you. I imagine that you will enjoy the variety demonstrations and models will bring to the lecture period as much as your students.

At the Advances in Engineering Education Web site you may access a PDF of the article—An Online Database and User Community for Physical Models in the Engineering Classroom.

In addition, here is a direct link to McGraw-Hill’s Hands-On Mechanics Web site.


Welch, R.W., Klosky, J.L., (2007). An online database and user community for physical models in the engineering classroom. Advances in Engineering Education, 1(1). Retrieved February 1, 2007, from