October 5, 2022

Making Computation Come Alive at MIT: Using Computational Techniques To Solve Real-World Problems

Youssef Marzouk, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and co-instructor for the 16.0002/ 18.0002 course this term. Credit: Gretchen Ertl
A brand-new course teaches trainees how to utilize computational techniques to resolve real-world problems, from landing a spacecraft to putting cell phone towers.
As a Martian lander descends toward the Red Planets surface, when can its parachute be safely deployed? Open it too early, while the lander is hurtling through the environment, and it might detach– but open it far too late and the lander might not decrease enough to avoid a devastating crash landing.
There are seemingly endless possibilities in this complex conundrum.

One method to resolve this puzzle is to utilize a computer to replicate the Mars landing, which is precisely how students in 16.0002/ 18.0002 (Introduction to Computational Science and Engineering) answered this concern, which belonged to their extremely first problem set.
First-year student Andres Arroyo (ideal) believed modeling a Mars lander objective was among the most intriguing real-world issues in the course. Credit: Gretchen Ertl
” It was interesting since there are a few ways you can model the problem,” states Andres Arroyo, a first-year student who took the course during the fall term. “You can model it in terms of how the speed of the lander modifications in time or how the speed modifications as it alters position. Depending on what your objective is from the simulation, you may attempt different techniques. I thought that was among the most intriguing things we did.”
The course, released last fall, is created to teach trainees how computation collides with the physical world. It was developed through the MIT Schwarzman College for Computings Common Ground for Computing Education, a multidepartment effort that intends to blend the teaching of computing and other disciplines.
The half-semester course puts programming in the context of computational science and engineering, a field that focuses on ingenious applications of computation.
Students learn to use computer programs for simulation, optimization, and unpredictability quantification. These foundational concepts are framed with concrete examples designed to be relatable to students who arent necessarily computer system science majors. Most students in the course this fall were either studying astronautics and aeronautics or mathematics.
Co-instructor Laurent Demanet, teacher of applied mathematics. Credit: Gretchen Ertl
Designing real-life problems
” Simulations like our Martian lander simulation are what people really use computers for. No, Im sure they have numerous more bells and whistles in their model. Conceptually, this is what people actually do,” says Youssef Marzouk, teacher of aeronautics and astronautics and co-instructor for the course this term.
Developing the course around such concrete examples gives trainees a sense of the number of issues can be approached utilizing computational models. Many trainees take the course in their very first or 2nd year, and numerous have yet to select a significant, so it is specifically important to offer them a taste of how computation is used in numerous fields, he states.
Ultimately, the abilities trainees integrate in this course will assist them deal with clinical forecast issues in whichever discipline they pick, Demanet says. Credit: Gretchen Ertl
In establishing the course, the professors wished to cover the basic elements of computational science and engineering in a manner that would make the ideas come conscious students, says co-instructor Laurent Demanet, professor of applied mathematics, who created the course with David Darmofal, the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Lectures cover the fundamental equations at work in a specific issue, such as Newtons law of movement for the Mars lander example, and then students learn to express those fundamental equations in an algorithm.
” It is the mix of mathematics with science and computer technology. It sings when you put all of it together,” Demanet states. “For the trainees, it is truly a skills-based class. We wish to supply students with skills that can be used nearly all over in their studies later, and then in numerous other domains as well.”
From formulas to simulations
Throughout one lecture, Demanet explained Newtons law of cooling (the rate at which an item cools is proportional to the temperature level distinction between the things and its environments). Then he ran a simulation using Python code that demonstrated how long it would take a cup of coffee to cool from 85 to 50 degrees.
Among the biggest obstacles of developing the course has actually been introducing these mathematical concepts while offering students enough context that they make sense for some contemporary applications– however without frustrating them with a lot of information, he states.
Beyond imparting concrete abilities, the examples are also designed to inspire students. One lecture that focused on environment science used mathematical equations for heat transfer to unmask an incorrect claim that water vapor is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Demanet informed the students not to take his word for it– he showed a computer system simulation that revealed how greenhouse gases have impacted the total increase in international temperature level over lots of years.
Outside the class, students applied their computational chops to a large range of real-world issue sets, from optimizing the placement of mobile phone towers around MIT, to charting how Covid-19 vaccine efficiency wanes in time, to examining the effect a geothermal heater could have on the temperature level inside a house.
For Penelope Herrero-Marques, the geothermal example stimulated her interest since she d like to set up a system in her own house at some point to minimize her carbon footprint. Herrero-Marques, a sophomore learning mechanical engineering who took the course last spring, was drawn to its relevant issue sets even though she had little background using computational methods.
” Some of the issues were a bit frightening initially even if they were so huge. For our first p-set in the class we are expected to design the Mars landing. The professors did an excellent task breaking it down into smaller sized issues. Do not get overwhelmed. Each big problem can be broken down into smaller sized issues that you are in fact able to deal with,” she states.
She is now sharing that wisdom as a teaching assistant for the course.
Fellow mentor assistant Mark Chiriac, a sophomore, took the course in its first iteration. The mathematics significant wanted to discover more about algorithms however likewise focus on applications he discovered fascinating, like planetary movement.
While one of the trickiest issues involved locating cellular phone towers around MIT, it was likewise amongst Chiriacs favorites because the example was so sensible. Successfully solving that optimization issue gave him the self-confidence to apply those skills in other courses, he says.
” This course puts together parts of coding, math, and physics in this gorgeous mix to give everyone the tools to tackle very relevant problems that are necessary in our world right now. It showed me how these different areas of science tie together in manner ins which I understood existed, however had actually not yet experienced for myself,” he states.
Ultimately, the skills students build in this course will assist them take on scientific prediction issues in whichever discipline they pick, Demanet states.
” I hope the trainees walk away with a gratitude of how calculation can be used to really replicate complicated things in the world around them,” Marzouk includes. Whether they invest the rest of their career discovering about those concepts and algorithms or whether they stop right here, I believe that is a valuable takeaway.”

” It was intriguing because there are a couple of ways you can design the problem,” states Andres Arroyo, a first-year student who took the course during the fall term. Students learn to utilize computer system programs for optimization, unpredictability, and simulation quantification. Most trainees in the course this fall were either studying aeronautics and astronautics or math.
Conceptually, this is what people really do,” says Youssef Marzouk, teacher of aeronautics and astronautics and co-instructor for the course this term. We desire to offer students with abilities that can be used practically all over in their studies later on, and then in so numerous other domains as well.”

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