John Kolinski

Experimental Methods in Engineering Mechanics

Aim: to give an advanced view of experimental methods used to study mechanics problems by way of example

Methods: learning-by-doing, Socratic questioninginterdisciplinary learning, active interaction, formative assessment, learning through mistake/error


The following script is going more in details in John’s course. It gives every information required for a professor to reproduce a similar hand’s on training.

What the course is about: students construct significant components of experimental apparatus and collect and interpret the resulting data. They will be involved in each experiential module from the construction of the experiment through the writing of the report on the data. Students could be involved in assessing the reports of others in a peer-review process.

Learning outcomes (technical skills):

  • Analyse and design assemblies of simple mechanical elements in the framework of static and buckling
  • Characterize experimentally the steady-state or dynamic response of solids, fluids
  • Describe in scientific terms and apply the principles of tribology and contact mechanics 
  • Analyse a linear dynamical system 
  • State the conserved quantities in a given flow and link them to a physical-mathematical description 

Transversal skills:

  • Take responsibility for health and safety of self and others in a working context
  • Assess one’s own level of skill acquisition, and plan their ongoing learning goals
  • Continue to work through difficulties or initial failure to find optimal solutions 
  • Manage priorities 
  • Collect data


Providing space for students to learn through taking action is quite a core element to John’s class. As he notes, passive circuit components are pretty mundane for anyone taking a circuit class and most of the students have seen the theory before: 

“It is really about letting them have the time to plug these things into a circuit board and actually start making measurements with a real piece of equipment, like the oscilloscope, and getting them to know how this equipment works through simple experiments”.

It is important for students to see and test things in order to connect theory and practice, as well as to ask questions and make adjustments accordingly. John uses Socratic questioning method in his interaction with students through which instead of giving answers and solutions to students, he inspires them to ask questions about what they are doing. Often, John also guides students through this system of questioning making a setting where learning by inquiry is possible. 

The two components of teaching make John’s classes highly interactive and this type of interaction is what normally is expected in a real lab setting, for which students need to be self-driven and self-regulated learners. While some of the questions can be anticipated and planned, a large proportion of student-related interaction cannot be predicted. Thus, applying a Socratic method and engaging in discovery along with the students, creates an atmosphere of openness and approachability for teachers. Point of the class that John emphasises on is that students come to the conclusions (and learning outcomes) by their own, through discovery, experimentation and inquiry.


The emphasis of the class, both in how it is prepared and how it is implemented is for students to achieve technical competence along with improving their transversal (professional) skills. John strongly focuses on communication at different levels, from report writing to communicating in teams and asking questions, and he notes this as an element that will certainly be valuable in students’ future careers:

“Technical capability is needed, but more important for me is the need to clearly communicate through written documentation about what they’ve done. Because regardless where they go in their careers, even if they choose to change to a completely different field clear communication will be essential for their continued success and so will team work”

Trial and error is another element critical for learning in John’s class and he tries to encourage it, especially because he feels students are more open to try out things and learn across disciplines when they are not severely punished for failing. In his course, students for instance learn how to pipette which is unusual for engineering mechanics students, and when they don’t manage to get their results the first time he lets them struggle until he sees that his intervention is necessary.

Essentially, combining different disciplines into a course is rather necessary, as John says, especially since “the nature of experimental work is interdisciplinary”. One needs to know how to combine different knowledge and skills in order to attempt an experiment. 


John applies a modular system to his course through which he tries to create smaller blocks of content engaging students to focus deeper on a specific learning goals. This is communicated to the teaching assistants (TAs) as much as the fact that the intention of the course is for students to arrive to the conclusions by trying out different solutions to a given problem or task.

Integral to course preparation is a reflection on previous years. Elements are modified and more enhanced so that they continuously become better. Yet, creating a good course to start with takes imagination, ideas and time. John’s previous education and teaching inspired development of a hands-on interactive course as he reflected on what teaching structures and elements were effective for his own professional development. In his case it was a class taught at Harvard using textbook Art of Electronics and a experiment-oriented course he taught as a postdoc. Hence, he incorporates several teaching methods that contribute to students engaging in active learning. Through developing carefully selected practical tasks in three modules over the semester, John provides student groups with a level of autonomy and responsibility for their own learning. This is entwined with elements where students need to ask for help or support which they can do by approaching him, the TAs or their peers. Orientation towards achieving a goal makes the learning active and interactive, however John notes the importance of careful documentation of the lab work by linking it to assessment which is transparently presented at the beginning.


John finds it important to clearly state what he expects students to be able to achieve at the end of the course. He is transparent about the elements which he tends to evaluate and how. For instance, a well-written lab report would include an outline of all the processes and provide evidence that student have grasped where they have made mistakes and how did they reflect on them. It will also showcase decisions based on thinking processes and calculations, and be similar to what they would be asked in the real-life situation, often having them look at each other reports and perform a peer-assessment tasks. 

Lastly, John emphasises the value of doing a little bit of reflection after each class, just to make sure what from the planned curriculum was implemented and how, as well as what went wrong and why. This way it is possible to make adjustments to the planning and always strive to perform better in the classroom interaction.