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Mechanix: A natural sketch interface tool for teaching truss analysis and free-body diagrams

  • Olufunmilola Atilola (a1), Stephanie Valentine (a2), Hong-Hoe Kim (a2), David Turner (a2), Erin McTigue (a3), Tracy Hammond (a2) and Julie Linsey (a1)...

Massive open online courses, online tutoring systems, and other computer homework systems are rapidly changing engineering education by providing increased student feedback and capitalizing upon online systems' scalability. While online homework systems provide great benefits, a growing concern among engineering educators is that students are losing both the critical art of sketching and the ability to take a real system and reduce it to an accurate but simplified free-body diagram (FBD). For example, some online systems allow the drag and drop of forces onto FBDs, but they do not allow the user to sketch the FBDs, which is a vital part of the learning process. In this paper, we discuss Mechanix, a sketch recognition tool that provides an efficient means for engineering students to learn how to draw truss FBDs and solve truss problems. The system allows students to sketch FBDs into a tablet computer or by using a mouse and a standard computer monitor. Using artificial intelligence, Mechanix can determine not only the component shapes and features of the diagram but also the relationships between those shapes and features. Because Mechanix is domain specific, it can use those relationships to determine not only whether a student's work is correct but also why it is incorrect. Mechanix is then able to provide immediate, constructive feedback to students without providing final answers. Within this manuscript, we document the inner workings of Mechanix, including the artificial intelligence behind the scenes, and present studies of the effects on student learning. The evaluations have shown that Mechanix is as effective as paper-and-pencil-based homework for teaching method of joints truss analysis; focus groups with students who used the program have revealed that they believe Mechanix enhances their learning and that they are highly engaged while using it.

Corresponding author
Reprint requests to: Julie Linsey, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, 801 Ferst Drive NW, Atlanta, GA 30332-0405, USA. E-mail:
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