On a mission to measure

How does cargo weight affect fuel economy in cars? What are the mechanical differences between bench pressing dumbbells and bench pressing barbells? How does temperature alter the mechanical properties of gummy bears?  

These are just a few of the questions students have explored during the Go Forth and Measure project in Course 2.671 (Measurement and Instrumentation). The class, typically taken during mechanical engineering students’ junior year, arms students with the knowledge and skills needed to see a research project through from inception to conclusion.


“The goal of 2.671 is to empower students with a set of tools that allows them to measure pretty much anything,” explains Ian Hunter, the George N. Hatsopoulos Professor in Thermodynamics and the instructor in charge of 2.671 during the fall term. The course provides a survey of a variety of techniques and instruments used in measurement and analysis. Each week in the lab, students get hands-on experience, using everything from accelerometers to thermo-anemometers. When Hunter began teaching the course in the early 2000s, he introduced the Go Forth and Measure project to provide students with the opportunity to apply various measurement tools and techniques to a topic of their choosing.


It starts with a question

For most students, the project is their first academic opportunity to conduct a research study from start to finish. As with all research, the projects must originate from a question. “Formulating a research question is the tricky part,” says Barbara Hughey, senior lecturer and 2.671 lab manager. “If we gave students the question or told them what project to do, they would be missing that really important first step.”

From the first day in 2.671, students are encouraged to start thinking about a question that interests or intrigues them. There are almost no limitations to what topics can be explored. Students have tested hypotheses about their favorite sports, the pitch of a musical instrument, or the composition of their favorite foods. Projects run from the serious to the inane. Whether it’s analyzing heart rate and reaction time, or determining how many rubber bands are needed to explode a pumpkin, the journey is the same.

“In a nutshell, the class follows the scientific method — find an interesting topic, build a hypothesis around it, and conduct experiments to test that hypothesis,” explains Assistant Professor Mathias Kolle, who teaches the 2.671 lectures in the spring term.

The students are not left solely to their own devices when conducting their first research study. They work closely with lab instructors and teaching assistants to determine whether their question is something that can be explored using the various measurement tools in the class’ extensive tool library. These relationships help shape students’ understanding of how research should be conducted, and help give them the confidence needed to see the project through to fruition.

“When the students start, there is such a tentativeness about it,” says Senior Lecturer Dawn Wendell ’04, SM ’06, PhD ’11, who took the course as an undergraduate and now mentors students on their Go Forth and Measure projects as a lab professor. “But when it’s something they care about, they are motivated to find out the answer.”

Communication with confidence

The Go Forth and Measure project does more than provide students with technical skills. It gives the tools needed to articulate their question and findings effectively and confidently to a diverse range of audiences.

“Perhaps the most important skill to have as an engineer is the ability to communicate what you’ve done, why you did it, and why it’s important for people to know about it,” Hughey says.

In 2.671, students gain valuable experience communicating in a variety of platforms. They write a paper about their findings in a journal article format, present their findings in the style of a conference presentation, and display their work in an end-of-term poster session. This experience articulating their findings in a manner that is digestible across multiple channels imbues students with confidence they carry with them, whether they pursue careers in academia or industry.

“When you’re conducting research, the point is you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says senior Hannah Rudolz, who explored the mechanical properties of vegan cheese verses dairy cheese in her project. “Going through the process from start to finish gave me a lot of confidence going into unknown projects in the future.”

While these skills will be valuable once students graduate and start the next chapter of their lives, it also helps them with their remaining undergraduate courses. “Knowing how to conduct science helps you read science better — you can critically analyze papers in an entirely new way,” says senior Amelia Bryan, an on-campus EMT who measured the efficacy of CPR when she took 2.671.

Go Forth and Measure projects also leave a lasting impression on the course’s teachers. “The student’s creativity, commitment, and enthusiasm as they advance in their projects really stick with us as instructors because you get to see firsthand how students use the concepts and skills we’ve taught them,” Kolle says.

“What makes it fun for me is seeing these students find that spark for them,” Wendell says. “You get to see their excitement throughout the semester as they live and breathe finding the answer to their question. That’s the joy of science — you want to know the answer, and you want to tell everyone about it.”