Tools for online teaching – and Sheffield University

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2008

Dr Richard Thackray, Corus Lecturer in Steelmaking, Department of Engineering Materials, University of Sheffield, UK, describes the advantages of online learning in the undergraduate curriculum.

While methods used for teaching the physical metallurgy of steel are well established, and in most cases straightforward to deliver, techniques to teach steelmaking and steel processing within an undergraduate curriculum can be more problematic. Equipment to demonstrate principles in the laboratory is rare or, when it is available, requires expertise to operate successfully and technician time, which is costly.

Using video or DVD footage is a possible solution, but modern footage of plant operations can be scarce or offer nothing more than a cursory glance over the process route. Plant visits are invaluable in introducing the scale of the operations, but with tightened health and safety legislation it is difficult to cover all the necessary detail in one visit.

However, there is an alternative in the form of, developed by the International Iron and Steel Institute, headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, aims to provide e-learning resources covering all aspects of iron and steelmaking, including applications and recycling. The resource is aimed at teachers, employers and company trainers, in addition to university students studying materials science, metallurgy or other engineering related disciplines.

As well as providing information on the basic principles of metallurgy, thermodynamics and kinetics, perhaps the most innovative aspect of the site is the game-like simulations of the main steelmaking operations. These allow the user to put theory into practice in a way that makes learning fun as well as educational.

Virtual steel

Simulations currently available include a tour of a virtual steel plant, primary processing operations such as basic oxygen steelmaking, secondary steelmaking and continuous casting, finishing operations such as hot rolling and heat treatment, and testing simulation modules. Each model is accompanied by a user manual containing background information and theory, which provides a starting point for successful completion.

The resource has been used for three years within the Engineering Materials department at the University of Sheffield, UK. As accompanying material to a standard steel processing module, the simulations allow students to better conceptualise the link between the various steps in the processes.

The tool has also been incorporated into classwork excercises in both second year and Masters level modules at Sheffield. These require the students to successfully complete the electric arc furnace and secondary steelmaking units, while making every effort to minimise operating costs. Students on the advanced metallurgy Masters course study the continuous casting module.

The latter session is a good example of the way in which the resource can reinforce concepts that cannot be covered in the curriculum, or can provide knowledge of the subject at a higher level than that delivered in the course content. Aspects such as heat transfer and strain during casting and solidification, which are extremely important in avoiding defect formation in the cast product, are covered in detail and are accompanied by interactive demonstrations which students can carry out in their own time and at their own pace.

Quizzes and exercises in the accompanying material allow users to check their progress at key points in the learning cycle.

A recent addition to the resource enables tutors to follow their students’ progress with the simulations, and quickly identify where they are encountering difficulties. This facility allows mini challenges, with a healthy degree of competition, to be run within a department or institution – an approach which mirrors the much larger worldwide challenge, a 24-hour competition that is run annually in November. Successful completion of a simulation produces a personalised certificate, which also aids the evaluation and assessment of results.

Some online modules are being used to replace, or add to, laboratory practical modules. The Charpy simulation has been applied at undergraduate level to demonstrate concepts such as toughness and ductile to brittle transitions, while it has also proved useful in demonstrating these concepts at a simpler level to visiting year 11 and 12 school pupils, and to non-technical steel industry operatives in short courses on the metallurgy of iron and steel.

This, and many of the other modules, can be used as a stand-alone teaching exercise or as part of a linked series of simulations, depending on the needs and ability, or experience, of the study group. There are plans to incorporate more of the exercises, particularly the tensile testing and hot rolling modules, on into the first and second year undergraduate laboratory timetable.

Plates and processing

The relationship and development of ideas between and university departments can also work in the opposite direction. Many academics worldwide have contributed to the online resource. For example, the University of Sheffield helped to provide some of the ideas and information that led to the creation of a current online module.

For five years the department, in close partnership with Siemens VAI and Corus CC&I, has run a group industrial project for final year students to find solutions to aspects of steel plate production. The choices that the groups had to make to find a workable solution to the problem in 12 weeks have been adapted to form part of the unit on plate rolling. It follows the sequence of events and the technical decisions that have to be taken when converting a plate order into a finished product.

As well as direct use of various simulations and interactive excercises, can form a reference database. The wealth of data covers basic metallurgy, thermodynamics, strengthening mechanisms and microstructure related to steel and steel processing.

Changing times

This tool has the potential to change the way in which steel and its associated topics are taught in both universities and schools, and this is reflected in the prizes and awards that it has received to date, most recently in the form of the Fairless Award from the Association for Iron and Steel Technology, USA, in May 2008.

At present only a small part of the resources available have been used at Sheffield. Plans are in place for more units to be taught to first year undergraduates, particularly those with a more general appeal focusing on sustainability and steel applications.

With new simulations on blast furnace operation and recovery and recrystallisation in the offing, the use of at university level and elsewhere will increase.

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