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Denavit Uses 3-D Models to Teach Structural Steel Design

Two views of a double angle connection in Neyland Stadium: one an interactive 3-D image, the other a photograph of the actual connection.

On the left: an interactive 3-D version of a double angle connection. On the right: the same connection found at Neyland Stadium.

The American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) recently launched a website developed by CEE Assistant Professor Mark Denavit that could fundamentally shift how students conceive of structural steel designs.

Mark Denavit.

Mark Denavit

Denavit envisioned creating a teaching aid for structural steel for his CE371 class, and with funding from AISC, he was able to make that a reality.

“When I worked in practice, I used steel detailing software and was amazed how well the models reflected the true geometry of the structure,” said Denavit. “Then, when teaching CE371, I saw students struggling to understand the three-dimensional reality of the connections we were studying.”

Denavit says he took a winding path to arrive at the concept and realized, upon reflection, that it bears similarity to the Rosetta Stone and how it helped archaeologists understand hieroglyphics:

A breakthrough in understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs was made possible by comparing the three versions of the same text inscribed on the Rosetta Stone. With the goal of helping students make breakthroughs of their own, this site also presents information in multiple ways, with three-dimensional models, two-dimensional drawings, photographs, calculations, and more.

Denavit had CEE Design Technician Larry Roberts fabricate some physical steel shapes for teaching purposes. He thought they worked well, so he requested more. While the physical models worked well for teaching, they are heavy and expensive, making virtual models a good substitute in the classroom.

The website currently features four different types of connections for structural steel tension members. One of them is based on a connection from Neyland Stadium, allowing students to compare the models, drawings, and calculations on the website to the real thing.

Denavit says the site is built to expand with potential for new connections, other collections showing buckling modes, or any suitable material that illustrates any concept in structural steel design where a three-dimensional model would be beneficial.

The site has already been shared in a webinar for AISC, and the plan is for it to be shared with many schools around the country. Denavit is looking forward to the spring semester when he’ll finally get to share it with his own students in the CE371 class.

View the model viewer website.