Dr. Ruben Hayrapetyan, Kettering University professor of Mathematics, has one question for students in his differential equations class: can you plan a trip to Mars? Yes, the planet Mars located 140,000,000 miles from Earth.
Hayrapetyan noticed a gap in the curriculum. Students are taught principles of differential equations and a few basic applications, but it is rarely tied to any challenging applications of the knowledge. So he set out to change this paradigm.
“My goal is to create a project for students to divulge into complicated applications of differential equations, to challenge creativity and search for innovation,” Hayrapetyan said. “In this project they can learn about interesting applications and work on them.”
Hayrapetyan is one of six faculty Kettering faculty members to receive internal topical grants from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) that encourage instructors to creatively infuse entrepreneurial elements in their classrooms. Additionally, distinguished faculty members in multiple departments at Kettering University have received about $40,000 each, for a total of $240,000 over the last two years, from KEEN to embed and incorporate various aspects of innovation and entrepreneurship mindset into their individual engineering and science courses.
Hayrapetyan’s goal with this project is twofold. One, instruct students on the potential applications of differential equations and two, challenge students with a problem that has no right or wrong answers.
“It’s absolutely open-ended. Students, especially freshmen, are used to thinking that the solution to the problem is either correct or incorrect, but that is not true often true in engineering,” Hayrapetyan said. “There are many situations that admit multiple solutions that are neither right or wrong. These situations are a challenge for an entrepreneurial and innovative mind. Innovative thinking does not come ready, it should be taught. So in our projects there are no consequences for doing something wrong. If you do something new and fantastic that’s not real, that’s even better.”
The purpose of this problem is to create something new stemming from the foundational knowledge of differential equations. Students are asked to create a business plan and budget that matches their mathematical principles for the trip to Mars. Mathematically, students may determine the trajectory of the shuttle and the principles necessary for launching, traveling, and landing on Mars, or whatever else they think is appropriate for such a task.
“The goal is to find problems needed to be addressed to organize such a trip and to try to solve them,” Hayrapetyan said. “Often students find problems to study that I could not even predict. For example, one student in his project independently decided to investigate the damping vibration of a stabilizer of a rocket.”
Hayrapetyan encourages his students by using an example from early space exploration in the Soviet Union. A group of young scholars and recent college graduates, were involved in launching the first Sputnik. The young scientists were not afraid of the difficulties and challenges in this enormously complicated problem so they were able to solve it.
“I want to encourage students to attack complicated problems. Don’t be afraid of the difficulty of the problem. Most of the difficult problems were solved by young people like you. That type of creative enterprise ability - that’s what I want them to learn.”