The ME Course Column is a recurring publication about the unique classes and labs that mechanical engineers can take while at the University of Colorado Boulder. Follow the series to understand the core curriculum, discover elective course options and learn the broad applications of mechanical engineering skills.
Most mechanical engineers will work with materials such as metals, polymers, ceramics and composites during their careers. However, a course taught by Department of Mechanical Engineering Professors Francois Barthelat and Franck Vernerey asks students to draw inspiration from another material – snow.
“I am a backcountry skier and as such, you have to learn a lot about avalanches and take courses for safety,” Vernerey said. “You realize there is so much mechanics involved with snow.”
MCEN 4228/5228: Mechanics of Snow motivates students to look at their environment and the materials around them in an analytical way. The idea behind the course is to teach students the science behind certain phenomena by looking at the fundamentals of snow and ice from the atomic level to the mechanics of the snowpack.
“Snow in itself is an interesting material to study, you do not necessarily think of looking at snow in the context of mechanics of materials, but there is a lot to learn from this approach,” Barthelat said. “This is a great a way to expose students to state-of-the-art experimental and modeling techniques that people use in engineering.”
While studying the properties of natural versus artificial snow, the mechanics of sliding on skis and snowboards, or the conditions that trigger avalanches, students also master theoretical tools such as fracture mechanics and heat transfer. They also learn about the relationship between molecular structures, thermodynamics, and micromechanics, including viscoelasticity.
The professors explained that applying these critical engineering concepts to snow helps students better understand the information. It allows them to see that these concepts are real and happening in our environment.
“We often teach mechanics of materials and students are not always connected to the course because they have not worked with the materials before,” Vernerey said. “They learn the equations but may have difficulties connecting them to the real world. This course allows them to better connect because they already have an idea about the material. They are much more motivated to learn.”
Students in Mechanics of Snow conducted their own research out in the elements on March 10, after Boulder received about four inches of snow. They measured the densities of the fresh and old snow, assessed their compressive strength and calculated the snow’s coefficients of friction on skis and snowboards.
The class will take one more field trip outside to conduct strength and fracture tests on the snow before completing final projects to wrap up the semester. Some students are looking at avalanche conditions, while others are studying the impact mechanics of snowballs or snow construction such as igloos and walls.
“A big takeaway from this course is that students will be exposed to a vast number of topics in engineering and physics,” Barthelat said. “If they need these in their professional life later on, they know that the concepts exist and where to find more information.”
Mechanics of Snow is a technical elective open to upper-level undergraduate and graduate mechanical engineering students.