It looked like a giant deep-sea jellyfish with multi-coloured tentacles streaming wildly from its underside. Instead, it was just another day in the Engineering Ideas Clinic™ as students gamely attempted to construct a working brushless DC motor from scratch.

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For the students of mechanical, mechatronics, electrical and computer engineering, learning the principles of electromagnetism becomes a hands-on lab that involves the very real world of figuring out how to wind their own electromagnets (very carefully) and the intricacies of determining the activation sequence for the electromagnetic coils (it’s tricky). Once this has been determined, off they go to the test bench to see if their sequences correctly activate each coil at the right moment. If it does, then it’s success. If not, then it’s back to the beginning with the rewinding of wires and checking of notes.

This Engineering Ideas Clinic activity is less about teaching then it is about learning. The students, each in teams of three or four, are actually self-teaching as they experiment with physical elements like the stator (coils of coated wires) and rotors (rare earth magnets). Using a bare-bones instruction sheet, the students learning to interpret drawings and follow directions. Some quickly learn to keep their nine coils of wire tightly contained to ensure consistent spooling, while others have adopted a less constrained method.  They quickly learn that yards of super fine wire becomes a tangled mess that impedes efficiency. Lesson learned – have control over your materials and think things through.brushless motor

But creating efficiency in construction of the brushless DC motor is just one element of the Engineering Ideas Clinic. Beyond learning how to build a physical object that using electromagnetism, the Ideas Clinic also teaches the students the importance of working safely and of communicating effectively with your team.

Without good communication and detailed note-taking, it is difficult to be an excellent engineer, says Sanjeev Bedi, professor, mechanical and mechatronics engineering, who, along with course instructor, Samar Mohamed (faculty liaison with the Centre for Teaching Excellence) run this particular Engineering Ideas Clinic activity. Students quickly learn that talking with teammates and effectively explaining one’s thinking goes a long way in project success. The detailed notes allow missteps to be identified and corrected. A group huddle on strategy going forward gives the team a shared sense of direction and everyone can do their bit.  And when something still doesn’t work, they have learned to fail forward and quickly pivot to a new ideas clinic

If after three hours the brushless DC motor didn’t pass on the test bench, students still learned everything they needed to know – they know where they went wrong and how to fix it. The abstract principles of electromagnetism were made concrete: the theoretical world became the real world thanks to another day in the Engineering Ideas Clinic.