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Students learn hands-on skills by building Stirling engines

About 160 mechanical engineering undergraduates participated in a
competition on Friday, Feb. 2, at the conclusion of a new, required
course designed to give students experience making something with their
own hands.

The results of their efforts were individual Stirling engines, which run
on the expansion of gas at high temperatures. The engines, which achieve
near ideal efficiency, can be used for a variety of purposes, from
pumping to cryogenic refrigeration. The small engines (8 inches long, 5
inches high and 4 inches wide), are made of brass, aluminum and
stainless steel.

"We now find that our incoming students, while very intelligent and
capable in many ways, do not necessarily have the same skills as
students of past years," explained Dr. Kevin N. Otto, Robert L. Noyce
Career Development Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Professor Otto and Dr. Douglas P. Hart, assistant professor of
mechanical engineering, developed the course and taught it during IAP.

Professor Hart said that many of today's undergraduates have had minimal
experience working with their hands. This was the result, he said, of
today's emphasis on cheap, disposable products and the prevalence of

For two weeks, Professor Hart said, the students worked five days a
week, eight hours a day, building their engines from scratch in the MIT
machine shop using standard and computer tools.

Professor Otto added, "The purpose of the course was to provide a
baseline level of mechanical engineering competence for all of our
students. Skill sets are changing. We therefore developed this course to
ensure they all know about machine tools, computer aided design and
numerical analysis."

In building their engines, he said, the students learned about machine
tools, machining materials, mechanical layout and machine assembly.

In the competition, engines were judged on the basis of speed and
craftsmanship, both for stock and modified models. Among the winners
were Olivier B. Burlaud, James K. Lee, Robert D. Lentz, Bryan L.
Morrissey, Rayshad Oshtory, Shawn A. Stern and Roy E. Swart.

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