15:17 PM

Getting to the Heart of the MATLAB

Engineering Science Undergraduate Natan Herzog Receives Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship to help students in ENGR 0135 learn MATLAB

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Integral to the field of engineering, MATLAB is a powerful programming language, used for developing algorithms and models that help engineers understand real-world problems and design robust solutions. Engineering students at Pitt are first introduced to MATLAB as part of the integrated first-year curriculum and continue to use it over the course of their programs.

Natan Herzog, a student in the Engineering Science program at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, has been using MATLAB for years, both as a student and later as an undergraduate teaching assistant for ENGR 0135: Statics and Mechanics of Materials 1, taught by Matthew Barry, assistant professor in the department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. The second-year engineering course teaches the mathematical principles behind analyzing a structure’s ability to withstand various loading configurations and to begin modeling the stresses it could experience.

Two years after taking the class, Herzog has received the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Teaching Fellowship for Fall 2023 to develop a curriculum that encourages students in ENGR 0135 to use MATLAB for their work by having them engage with solving real problems, rather than by providing uninspiring lessons on coding fundamentals.

“This course is the first real introduction to thinking like an engineer and applying principles to solve a problem in practice with their final bridge project. They design, optimize, and then build a bridge in an iterative process to explore the concepts we introduce throughout the course,” said Herzog. “From my experiences as a student and as an undergraduate teaching assistant, I've identified that there is room for us to improve the use of MATLAB programming during the course and especially in the final project.”

Each year, the Frederick Honors College awards $800 teaching fellowships to undergraduates across the university for joint student-faculty teaching projects. The Fellowships present an opportunity for students to develop creative teaching projects in collaboration with a professor to enrich the course. 

Students gain experience with MATLAB through using a curriculum-specific, interactive, online textbook that was created to not only streamline student learning, but also expose students to MATLAB (and its various utilities, such as their symbolics toolbox). The textbook is a byproduct of the Committee on Computational/Data Science Curriculum Enhancement (CCDSCE), which aims to integrate coding into the Mechanical Engineering degree program early on and continuously build upon what was taught in prior classes to augment students’ understanding and capabilities.

“As an undergraduate teaching assistant, Natan was then able to share his passion for coding and assist students with their projects, lending knowledge he gained from taking more classes that emphasized using MATLAB to solve complex engineering problems,” said Barry. “Natan saw an opportunity to enhance this course by both introducing MATLAB earlier within the course and more pervasively, creating direct coding analogs to the student learning objectives. Natan’s enthusiasm for coding and education is highly commendable, and it will be a pleasure to work with him on enhancing this course.”

In the final project of Barry’s Statics course, students use MATLAB to model the stresses throughout a bridge truss structure of their design. They are encouraged to create powerful optimization scripts to aid in the design process by analyzing a range of physical configurations, but historically, Herzog noted, the course hasn’t had the time to fully engage with and build those programming problem-solving skills. Through his fellowship, Herzog will develop content and hold additional sessions where he will engage students with MATLAB’s potential by tying it back into the course material, with a focus on the skills needed for the final project. 

“The inspiration for me this semester is teaching how to solve problems using code, rather than teaching how to code,” said Herzog. “This is an important guiding principle as I think that engineering students will better appreciate the power of programming through this lens. So all of my content will be geared towards solving the problems they're already doing in class, but showing just how easy and robust it can be with MATLAB.”