SRU engineering professor’s demonstrations are working like magic

Steven Wei

Xinchao “Steven” Wei, Slippery Rock University professor of physics and engineering, shows how someone can balance a toothpick and two forks on their fingertip during a demonstration at SRU’s Professional Development Day. Wei is using this and other hands-on activities in his classes. Photo by Benton Palermo, a senior communication: digital media major from Beaver.

Dec. 7, 2017

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The new director of Slippery Rock University's engineering program doesn't claim to be a magician. Actually, he would be a horrible magician because he reveals the secrets behind his tricks. However, Xinchao "Steven" Wei, professor of physics and engineering, has a magic touch when it comes to getting students interested in science and engineering.

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"I use the word magic, but mostly it's some sort of engineering demonstration," said Wei, who shared his teaching approach with his colleagues at SRU's most recent Professional Development Day. "I don't intend to teach my class magically, but the purpose is engaging the student in the classroom. A lot of folks think engineering and science are challenging and tough. If we can make our class lecture more exciting, it works better and changes the dynamic of the classroom significantly."

For example, when Wei sticks a toothpick into the slot of two interlocked forks and balances the other end of the toothpick on the tip of his finger, it may look like magic, but it's an exercise to demonstrate how to find the center of mass of an object.

"There's nothing magic about this. It's all real," Wei said. "It's a product of intentional design with solid scientific knowledge and sound engineering principles. In a way, all magicians are engineers."

In another demonstration of fluid mechanics and buoyancy force, Wei drops a sauce packet into a plastic water bottle. The packet initially floats but he asks observers to use willpower or telepathy to make the packet sink. Wei actually squeezes the bottle, decreasing the volume and reducing the density of the water to make the packet sink, which he goes on to explain.

Wei is not simply teaching students tricks they can show their friends at the lunch table; they are learning how to apply the lessons. In his Engineering Graphics course, he has students build bridges out of uncooked spaghetti noodles and tape. The weight of the materials must not exceed 330 grams. This is an important lesson for aspiring civil engineers who must build bridges on much larger scales, but with a limited budget.

"Science is understanding how the world works, while engineering is applying the knowledge of science and math to change the world by solving various problems in a practical way," Wei said. "When you apply it, (you're able to) better understand it. In order to be a good designer you don't just draw things. In engineering, you need to analyze and understand why."

Anna Woods, a sophomore petroleum and natural gas engineering major from Clymer, New York, appreciates how Wei makes engineering interesting, especially for the Engineering Graphics course that meets in the evening when attention spans are reaching their limits.

"Dr. Wei is so hands-on and so enthusiastic about the topic that it's easy to get engaged," said Woods, who was also part of Wei's first-year seminar class that built a Da Vinci bridge. "It's better than a lecture because you are more involved with the things that you are trying to learn. You can see how it's happening and see how it works."

Wei was hired to lead SRU's new engineering program, now in its second year, which includes more than 40 students in two majors: petroleum and natural gas engineering and industrial and systems engineering. SRU is expected to add more majors, but like any design, it takes rigorous and thoughtful planning -- and a little bit of magic.

"The kind of stuff that Dr. Wei is doing is exactly what is needed," said Athula Herat, associate professor of physics and engineering and chair of the department. "The best way to teach science and engineering and mathematics is to have active-learning classrooms."

Herat said that, in addition to Wei's credentials and experience with the accreditation process, his colleagues were taken in by Wei's demonstrations when SRU hired him prior to the fall 2017 semester.

"He's a very good teacher; the students like him a lot," Herat added. "We are developing new engineering programs and he was the right man for the job."

Wei doesn't consider himself the star of the magic show, either.

"Something I really like about this institution is the way we focus on student success," said Wei, who was previously the program coordinator of civil engineering at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York. "The magic and demonstrations are to nourish students' curiosity to the knowledge and engineering principles; make the learning environment dynamic, fun and exciting; and hopefully achieve better learning outcomes."

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