Finite Element Project

Julie Fogarty
California State University-Sacramento,
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Students use MATLAB to modify an existing direct stiffness method structural analysis program to enable the use of 4-node rectangular finite elements.

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Learning Goals

The goal of this activity is to give students an understanding of what the "black box" finite element program is doing by enabling them to take an analysis method they're already familiar with and modify it into the new one that they're learning about in class. The finite element method is matrix based which makes MATLAB an appropriate tool to use for developing the program. Students must develop appropriate models, analyze and interpret output data, and use critical thinking to determine whether or not they have developed a program that is actually solving the problems they are aiming to solve. Students submit a written report documenting their changes and the outcome of their program.

Context for Use

Masters or PhD Level students, 15 to 45 students per class, used at both teaching and R1 institutions.

Longer project that requires 20+ hours of work outside the classroom

Some students have zero experience with MATLAB prior to starting the project. Experience is valuable, but not required as long as some programming language has been learned and students understand loops and if then statements.

Students need to have mastered linear algebra and an introductory structural analysis course.

Project runs parallel to teaching more complicated finite element formulations and can be completed with content delivered in the first few weeks of class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Mechanics involve providing students with open-ended assignment, existing structural analysis program in the form of several MATLAB files that are linked, and a guide describing the content and variables in the files.
Project Assignment (Acrobat (PDF) 139kB Aug16 18)

Teaching Notes and Tips


There is a grading rubric used to assess the project. This rubric is not provided to students as part of the task is to identify what is appropriate to communicate through their written project.

References and Resources