An iPad app designed to teach children about structural engineering has taken the US by storm, reaching #22 on the download charts for the iconic tablet brand.

The success of the Truss Me! app may be explained by the fact that it feels and looks like a game, even though the simulation engine running behind the scenes is truly state-of-the-art.

The app, including its algorithms, was designed by professor Julian J. Rimoli from Georgia Tech, who teaches Aerospace Engineering and whose research focuses on advanced modeling of materials and structures.

Rimoli came up with the idea for such a sophisticated simulation engine because he wanted users of the game to acquire the right intuition about what is really going on with the structure. Many “structures” games, he said, are designed to just look good and not to reproduce reality.

The main objective is to help students acquire some intuition as to how truss structures behave through state of the art simulations.

The game has two playing modes. In the freestyle mode, students are encouraged to design and test their own structures. In this way, they can see which concepts work and which ones fail. In the challenges mode, students have to solve structural puzzles in order of increasing level of complexity. Their work is rewarded according to how light their design is: the lighter the structure the more points they get, and the more points the get, the more golden nuts they collect.

For each challenge, they can win up to three golden nuts. However, collecting golden nuts does not necessarily prove to be an easy task, as structures can fail if their component parts are too slender.

Rimoli has used trusses as the fundamental component of the game for several reasons.

Firstly, trusses are everywhere.

“Kids can see them everywhere in their daily life,” he said. “They are in bridges, roofs, cranes, stadiums, power lines and more.”

Trusses are also simple.

“All you need to understand the behaviour of a truss is the notion of tension and compression,” he added. “Consequently, there is no need to explain complicated concepts such as shear and bending. Yet, despite their simplicity, trusses allow you to explain all the main concepts of structural mechanics: loads are related to deformations, deformations are related to stresses, and stresses are related to failure.”

Rimoli believes that ‘games’ are an excellent way of engaging students.

“We all like to have fun, and the reality is that sometimes studying can be a little bit boring if we are not interested on the subject,” he said.  “I believe that the gaming component in an educational tool is critical to generate interest. They still have to work hard to learn.”

“In ‘Truss Me!’ you have to think hard on each challenge (golden nuts aren’t free!), but the activity can become much more bearable and even entertaining if you have the motivation to do it. I believe games amplify the motivational factor in students enormously.”

There is a growing trend toward encouraging younger children to enter the field of engineering, and educational toys are certainly playing a huge role in that.

Just as Truss Me! is carving its niche in the iPad app market, Goldieblox has taken the toy aisle by storm. Although aimed specifically at getting girls into engineering and addressing a gender imbalance in the industry, the principles are the same and Rimoli believes that the traction it is gaining is hugely important for the profession.

“Engineering is about solving societal problems, and as such the field needs engineers that fairly represent the diversity of our society,” he said. “Traditionally, women are underrepresented in engineering. I think that issue should be addressed, but the big question is: how do we do it? There are many approaches at many levels – for example generating more inclusive work environments or incentivising those women interested in engineering through scholarships. But the most pressing aspect from my perspective is that the pipeline is not big enough.”

“What I like about the concept behind Goldieblox is that it attacks the problem at its root by generating interest in engineering at early stages. It is also fantastic to see how they gracefully break with engineering and gender stereotypes. I think these kind of approaches aimed at the early stages of education will profoundly impact the development of the engineering workforce.”

Rimoli said he still has many more ideas for educational engineering apps.