Cornell University: Forklift Learning Studio elevates active learning for engineers

Forklifts are most often used for moving goods and materials, but a new Forklift Learning Studio at Cornell will be used to elevate engineering education, turning the vehicles into interactive tools for studying thermofluids, modeling structural mechanics, and experimenting with control dynamics.

Located on the first floor of Thurston Hall, the studio launched on April 19 thanks to a partnership with Toyota Material Handling, which donated three models of forklifts as well as components and parts. The studio space is still being updated and will eventually serve at least seven different engineering courses, beginning with two in the fall semester.

“We are excited about the future of this partnership and the impact it will have on the next generation of engineers,” said Brett Wood ’85, president and CEO of Toyota Material Handling North America, during a studio launch ceremony.

“This is very exciting, and it’s the new way we want to do undergraduate instructional labs,” said David Erickson, the SC Thomas Sze Director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “We want students to look at the way they learn from a system level, with real-world examples, and there’s nothing more real world than a forklift.”

Inside the learning studio, students will deconstruct and assemble forklifts and their components to learn about mechanical properties and how they integrate into a larger system. For instance, students in ENGRD2210 Thermodynamics might observe the aerodynamic forces of a spinning-cylinder Flettner rotor, while others might get hands-on with a Venturi vacuum system as part of the MAE3230 Fluid Mechanics course.

“With all the different courses that are associated with this one entity, it is tremendous how an integrated system can be brought to bear with one facility like this,” said David Putnam, associate dean for innovation and entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering.

The Forklift Learning Studio was born from discussions between Wood and Brian Kirby, the Meinig Family Professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. They wanted to build a learning space using an integrated system with enough complexity to serve a wide range of students, from first-year students to seniors.

“I think students are going to be way more excited about fluid mechanical principles when I teach it next to a forklift with a big hydraulic ram,” Kirby said. “We want students to see the links between fluid mechanics and heat transfer and system dynamics in a way that they don’t if the labs are isolated from the class.”

Wood, a third-generation Cornellian, said the studio launch was a special moment for him personally because his father had studied mechanical engineering in Thurston Hall, and because the studio pairs his Big Red pride with his professional passion.

“As a former engineering student, I would have loved the opportunity to learn in such a hands-on way that connects the classroom to the real world,” Wood said. “Young people often wonder how they’ll use certain theories in their professional lives because it’s often difficult to connect the dots. In the learning studio, all of the dots will exist in the same space as the finished product.”

Lynden Archer, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, said he anticipates the model forged with Toyota will be replicated in programs throughout the college.

“We deeply appreciate the expertise and forward-thinking approach that Brett and his colleagues at Toyota have brought to the table as we reimagine engineering education and strengthen our connections to important industries,” Archer said.