Introducing students to simulations in large-lecture classes

Course Information

Course Name: ENG 45: Properties of Materials

Enrollment: 128 students

Brief Description of Course: This course covers the properties of materials and introduces students to the field of materials science and engineering. This course  is required of all students majoring in materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, and aerospace engineering.  


Computer-based visualizations and simulations can be effective tools to enhance learning. These activities can allow students to manipulate three-dimensional structures or change simulation conditions to virtually “test” hypotheses. Additionally, students’ computer literacy can be enhanced by exposing them to modern computer-based tools in the classroom. I am particularly interested in incorporating these learning modules into my introductory materials science class, as there are several key topics that students commonly struggle to understand.

However, there are several limitations to implementing simulations into large-lecture courses:

  • Computer availability: The course enrolls 128 students each quarter, but I only utilize several computer-based assignments. Therefore, it is not feasible to relocate to a computer lab for one or two sessions.
  • Cost of software tools: In materials science, a variety of computational tools are used, so multiple software licenses could be expensive for a 100+ student introductory course.
  • Internet stability and connectivity: The wireless internet connectivity of some classrooms can be unstable or insufficient to provide the necessary bandwidth for the class when performing web-based simulations.

A key solution that I have found is to use free or open-source software or virtual simulations that students can run directly on their own laptop computers, without requiring the purchase of additional software. In preparation for these activities, students are instructed to bring their laptop computers on the specified day and to download any software, if needed. Then, in class, students work in pairs or groups of three to complete the interactive assignments. Allowing collaboration between students serves to both enhance their learning and to minimize computer problems. Computer problems include software installation issues as well as students who do not own a laptop computer.

I often use simulation activities that are developed by educators and are targeted for use in college courses. The most promising activities are those which can be completed in a 50-minute lecture (or less). As an instructor, I find that the best tools provide sufficient documentation on how to use the software tool (such as where to access certain features in the software) as well as a sufficient amount of background knowledge on the topic. For materials science and engineering, the Integrated Computational Materials Education (ICMEd) Summer School has developed modules on analyzing stress distributions within a material, predicting lattice constants using density functional theory, determining phase diagrams using ThermoCalc, and simulating diffusion [1]. The nanoHUB platform [2] also hosts other educational tools, such  as nanowire deformation.

Visualizing Crystal Structures

For my introductory course, I recently developed an activity to help with students’ three-dimensional visualization of crystal structures [3,4]. This two-part module first has students complete a worksheet from memory, then repeat the questions with the aid of computer visualization. The activity is based on the Interactive-Constructive-Active-Passive model of learning, which suggests that maximum learning is achieved when students work together constructing new knowledge [5].
Students first complete an individual handout which asks them to identify specific structures and planes. They are also required to sketch a set of planar projections, and then rank their planar density. The ranking task requires them to generate a method of estimating this value. The individual activity allows students to test themselves on their content knowledge and spatial visualization skills.The second part of the activity requires students to work together to answer questions while manipulating three-dimensional crystal structures utilizing the open-source visualization tool OVITO [6]. Students can rotate crystal structures and see the atomic arrangement on different planes. Students use the software to repeat the sketches and ranking activity from part 1, identifying their own misconceptions.


My initial experiences have shown that students are very receptive to completing these modules. Furthermore, students have been very receptive to using software in class on their personal computers. Anecdotally, approximately 90% of students will bring a laptop to class if requested in advance, while a survey found that 84% of students felt that downloading the OVITO software was reasonable. If designed correctly, students can perceive a benefit to these activities and find the learning to be comparable to that of a laboratory exercise [4, 7]. These activities can enhance student learning through active engagement in the course content, while being applicable to large-lecture settings.

All of the information on the crystal structure activity has been publicly distributed for other educators [3] with a summary and discussion published with the American Society for Engineering Education [4]. Instructors and students are provided with handouts walking them through the use of OVITO, so minimal experience with the software is required.


[1] Summer School for Integrated Computational Materials Education.

[2] Materials Science group on nanoHUB.

[3] Gentry, S. and T. Faltens, Visualizing Crystal Structures: An Interactive Group Classroom Activity. 2016. Available from:

[4] Gentry, S.P. and T. Faltens. “A computer-based interactive activity for visualizing crystal structures in introductory materials science courses.” P. Amer. Soc. Eng. Educ. 2017; 20127.

[5] Chi, M.T.H. and R. Wylie, “The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes.” Educ. Psychol., 2014. 49(4): p. 219-243.

[6] OVITO: Open Visualization Tool.

[7] Clark, T.M. and J.M. Chamberlain, “Use of a PhET Interactive Simulation in General Chemistry Laboratory: Models of the Hydrogen Atom.” J. Chem. Educ., 2014. 91(8): p. 1198-1202.


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About Susan Gentry

Dr. Susan P. Gentry is a Lecturer with Potential Security of Employment in the Materials Science and Engineering department at the University of California, Davis. In her current position at UC Davis, she is integrating computational modules into the undergraduate and graduate materials curriculum. She is specifically interested in students’ computational literacy and life-long learning of computational materials science tools.

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