When Colin McKinstrie asked his mechanical engineering students last year to find the most efficient way to evacuate people from a planet using rocket propulsion -- a task requiring complex computations involving velocity, gravity, air resistance and several other factors -- many were frustrated by the long lines of classmates waiting to use the few powerful computers capable of analyzing such problems.
Facing similar difficulties, McKinstrie's colleagues Alfred Clark, Jr. and Sheryl Gracewski in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Rochester sat down and wrote a grant to the National Science Foundation (NSF). The team recently learned that the NSF has awarded the department $31,000 toward the purchase of 21 new Macintosh computers equipped with the powerful program Mathematica. The University will provide an additional $31,000.
The new computer lab, to open during the fall semester, will allow classes of up to 50 students to use Mathematica to complete assignments and carry out realistic design projects. Students can use Mathematica to plot graphs, integrate functions, and solve differential equations, allowing them to observe first- hand the effects of changing physical variables.
"With these computers, you can do things in one minute that 40 years ago would have taken half a day," Clark says. "It will allow students to explore problems that are too complex for them to do on their own.
"The theme is visualizing," Clark adds. "Three-dimensional planes and curves can be difficult for a college sophomore to visualize. These computers will help them do just that."
Clark says that students' savvy with Mathematica will also translate into skills useful in industry, where such versatile programs can be applied to a variety of problems -- much like a powerful calculator.
"This is the modern, turbo-charged version of the all- purpose calculator," he says. sb