More than 30% of the undergraduate students in the School of Materials Engineering at Purdue University participate in faculty led undergraduate research projects. We attribute this large percentage, at least partially, to the success of laboratory courses which expose students to tools and techniques that enable effective entry into academic research. This paper describes one such activity where students use a research-grade molecular simulation tool together with hands-on experiments in a sophomore-level MSE laboratory course. While the simulation was created for the purpose of molecular research, we propose its use as a pedagogical tool to assist student's development of an intuitive picture of plastic deformation of crystalline materials at both the atomic and bulk (microstructural) levels.
In this learning module, students use online molecular dynamics simulations to perform virtual tensile deformation tests on nanowires, analyze the simulation results using powerful and interactive visualization and then compare these results directly with ones from their tensile tests. The simulations are performed using the nanoMATERIALS simulation tool in nanoHUB.org, a web-portal that enables online simulations using a standard web-browser without the need to download or install any software nor provide the compute cycles for the simulations. The combined experiments have been effective in introducing concepts related to slip, dislocation motion, strain hardening, and microstructure. The course materials as well as the simulation tool are freely available at nanoHUB (https://nanohub.org/topics/LearningModulePlasticityMD). In addition to learning fundamental concepts, this assessment will link students' use of the simulations to their interest in pursuing undergraduate research opportunities.