West brings gymnastics into engineering classroom


Julia Cation

Associate Professor Matt West is ramping up the entertainment factor—and student comprehension—when it comes to teaching the fundamental principles in his Introductory Dynamics class (TAM 212). 
Instead of recycling the over-used examples seen in many engineering textbooks, he decided that Illinois women’s gymnast Giana O’Connor could demonstrate some of the principles in a much more engaging and cutting-edge way. 
Working with the campus’ Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), West recorded O’Connor performing a variety of moves on the uneven bars. The resulting video footage and explanation of the concepts will be incorporated in a campus MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for TAM 212, and West also plans to use it for the traditional version of the course.
“Gymnasts on the uneven bars are constantly making use of their angular momentum, kinetic energy, and potential energy, and exploiting transfers between different types of momentum and energy. For example, to “kip” up from hanging-down to a position over the bar, the gymnast first produces kinetic energy from leg motion, and then transfers this to whole-body rotational motion and finally to added potential energy. These concepts are fundamental in Introductory Dynamics, and the gymnastics application provides a context to understand the real-world impact of these ideas,” West explained. 
Additionally, with the help of MechSE assistant professors Randy Ewoldt and Mariana Kersh, the video will be included as a cross-course example for all intro TAM courses—TAM 210/211 (Introductory Statics) and TAM 251 (Introductory Solid Mechanics). Ewoldt and Kersh became involved in the project because the concept relates to their use of high-speed cameras (Ewoldt) and motion capture technology (Kersh) within their own research programs. 
JC Morgan, a CITL project manager who is helping to produce the video, noted that West’s more contemporary approach to instruction is truly innovative and long overdue in many engineering classrooms.
“Matt’s course is presenting basic engineering principles through the use of real-world experiences, with the goal of making this important information more exciting than the fairly dry examples found in most textbooks. I worked in textbook production for many years and had involvement with several high-profile statics and dynamics textbooks. The print format and those books’ approach to teaching this information just didn’t have the engagement factor that we’re trying to achieve through Matt’s course.” 
West has been a leader in introducing innovative teaching methods into MechSE's TAM courses for several years. He is the principal investigator on a Strategic Instructional Initiatives Program (SIIP) grant titled “Adaptive Learning via Big Data: The Future of Student-focused Instruction.” Through SIIP, he has built a team of faculty, lecturers, and teaching assistants to bring active learning to the TAM series and to increase student engagement in these courses. West is also co-PI on an NSF WIDER grant involving faculty from 10 departments in engineering and LAS. They focus on implementing evidence-based instructional reforms and studying long-term success of the teaching methods.
In 2014, West was named a University Distinguished Teacher-Scholar in the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education (AE3). This honor is the university’s premier recognition for excellence in teaching, contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning, and a commitment to activities that enhance student learning at Illinois. He has been named to the university's "List of Teachers Ranked as Excellent by Their Students" for every course he has taught at Illinois since 2010, both in TAM and ME. Additionally, West is a 2014-2015 Education Innovation Fellow in the College of Engineering.