Balloonists and Bombardiers: Teaching Mechanics with Excel

Malcolm Anderson
Department of Mathematics
Universiti Brunei Darussalam


The spreadsheet package Excel is useful not only for numerical calculation, but can also help students check the results of their analytical work. Excel is easy to learn and readily accessible to the students at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD), which gives it an advantage over more sophisticated computer algebra packages like Maple or Scientific Notebook. This talk briefly describes the use made of Excel’s graphing capabilities in tutorial classes in a third-year mechanics course at UBD. Working in groups of three or four, the students were asked to analytically solve a mechanics problem, usually involving a system of ordinary differential equations, and to choose the initial or intermediate values of some of the parameters so as to meet a prescribed objective, such as landing a balloon safely or firing a projectile at a target. The students could then check their results by entering the chosen parameter values into a specially-prepared Excel spreadsheet which generated a visual representation of the solution. The tutorial sessions were enjoyable for everyone involved, and successfully encouraged the students to hone their analytical skills while giving them some of the immediacy associated with solving real-life problems.

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