Do-It-Yourself Engineering

Course No. 1144
Professor Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.
United States Military Academy, West Point
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Course No. 1144
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers How to think like an engineer.
  • numbers How skyscrapers, bridges, airplanes, turbines, and other engineered structures work.
  • numbers Elementary physics concepts, such as conservation of energy, Newton's laws, and Bernoulli's principle.
  • numbers How to apply high-school-level mathematics to engineering problems.
  • numbers The safe use of benchtop power tools.

Course Overview

Everyone appreciates a well-designed bridge, a sturdy skyscraper, or a flightworthy aircraft. But how many of us who aren’t engineers think, “I could build that”? In fact, you can. You may not have a professional engineer’s credentials, but you can tinker all you want in your own workshop, using readily available materials to build working models that solve all the fundamental problems of the real thing.

With a do-it-yourself spirit, combined with an engineer’s approach to problem solving, you can design and build small-scale models of practically any structure, machine, or device in today’s world. And in tackling these projects, you will gain a deeper understanding of scientific and engineering principles, a proficiency with basic algebra and trigonometry, and new strategies and skills to use in the shop—all while having fun!

So, roll up your sleeves and get started with Do-It-Yourself Engineering, 17 enthralling DIY projects in 24 half-hour lessons—from ancient catapults to modern flying machines, from a motor-powered crane to a mechanical clock. Some of the most astounding projects you’ll experience include:

  • Suspension bridge: A suspension bridge spanning eight feet requires two towers roughly five feet high. By calculating the stresses experienced by the structural system when it is fully loaded with pedestrians, you can design and build a light, strong bridge with readily available hardware.
  • Skyscraper: An ideal introduction to the engineering of tall buildings is a tower structure built with just a few sheets of cardboard, which can be fashioned into sturdy columns, beams, and braces. A properly engineered tower, three feet high, can support more than 100 pounds of bricks stacked on top!
  • Airplane: The Wright brothers built a wind tunnel to develop a wing design for their airplane. So can you, using an ordinary house fan. Your model aircraft will also need a propulsion system, three-axis stability, and a means of controlling its flight path—problems you can solve with the aid of elementary aerodynamic theory.

Your instructor is award-winning educator Stephen Ressler, a DIY addict and Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point, and a long-time Great Courses favorite.

A Step-by-Step Guide

Professor Ressler walks you through all the phases of each project, describing the design process, performing the construction steps on camera, and illustrating them with detailed drawings that he prepared himself, including lifelike 3D computer models. The accompanying Course Guide provides all required mathematical calculations for each design, step-by-step instructions for construction, a complete list of materials and tools, and a set of full-size templates that you can print for use in cutting out parts. Furthermore, you can go to the course website to download your own copies of the 3D computer models and other resources.

A do-it-yourselfer’s dream come true, this course will appeal not just to those who want to build challenging projects, but also anyone who wants to learn how to think like an engineer or who enjoys watching a master craftsman at work. Professor Ressler uses high-school-level algebra and trigonometry throughout the course, which he explains as he goes, so that even those whose math skills are rusty will have the tools to thoroughly enjoy every step of the process.

Do-It-Yourself Engineering was recorded in The Great Courses’ studio and on location at a modest workshop equipped with common benchtop power tools. Professor Ressler divides each project into three phases:

  • Design: Here, Dr. Ressler defines the problem, often investigating several possible solutions. Then, he selects one and develops it in detail, sketching the evolving concept on a whiteboard. This is where math enters the picture, along with physical principles such as the law of conservation of energy. These principles allow you to predict how the device will perform, even before it’s built.
  • Build: Many DIY’ers begin here, with trial-and-error tinkering that involves much wasted effort and materials. It’s crucial to have a fully developed plan first, as you learn to do in this course. For the build phase, Professor Ressler shows you how to use power and hand tools in each step, stressing safety. In these instructive segments, he is the quintessential shop teacher.
  • Test: This is the moment of truth and sometimes the occasion for creative troubleshooting to solve problems. For the sailboat, blimp, airplane, helicopter, and rocket, it is the opportunity for fine-tuning to prepare the vehicle for the next run. For the two bridges, it guarantees that the structure is safe for pedestrian traffic. For the three catapults, it means it’s time for the battle to begin!

Learn by Doing

Make! Invent! Create! These are some of the slogans of the Maker Culture, which is transforming education through its focus on exploration, self-reliance, and the joys of building things. Do-It-Yourself Engineering fits right in with this outlook. Some 2,400 years ago Aristotle wrote, “we learn by doing.” It’s still true today. Anyone can buy a fully functioning model airplane on the internet, but by designing and building one from scratch you discover what makes an airplane fly; how it ascends, descends, and turns; what keeps it stable; and what produces the dangerous phenomenon called stalling. Some of your other learning adventures in this course include:

  • Buoyancy: Buoyancy is the force that causes boats to float—even those made of concrete. It’s also the reason why a helium-filled blimp rises. In both cases, mathematics allows you to calculate the size your vessel must be to ensure that the buoyant force will support the model’s weight.
  • Torque: The rotational force known as torque plays a prominent role in the design of many engineered systems. For your model helicopter, the substantial torque generated by the main rotor must be countered by a tail rotor. Altering torque with a gear train is one way to optimize the power of a water turbine. Gear trains are also crucial to the operation of a pendulum clock and a motor-powered crane.
  • Electricity: One thrilling project you will experience is a model rocket. No less fascinating is an electric launch controller to ignite the engine. Since safety is paramount, you design a circuit with fail-safe features. Along the way, you learn about voltage, current, resistance, batteries, and how to solder. Then you launch!

The United States Military Academy at West Point, where Professor Ressler taught for 21 years before his retirement, is renowned for the rigor of its engineering programs. After immersing yourself in these 24 delightful and enlightening lessons, you’ll have no doubt that Dr. Ressler’s classes are not just rigorous, but beautifully clear and immensely enjoyable. Among his many talents is a showman’s timing, as he unforgettably demonstrates in the final lesson, a DIY engineer’s finale like no other.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 33 minutes each
  • 1
    Why DIY Engineering?
    Follow the seven steps in the engineering design process to create a golf ball launcher that can hit a target ten feet away. Apply the principle of conservation of energy to select the right steel spring for the job. After building and testing the launcher, consider the joys of do-it-yourself projects and the insights they provide about fundamental engineering concepts. x
  • 2
    Exploring the Science of Structure
    Get started on DIY project number two: use cardboard to build a tower capable of supporting a 100-pound gravity load and a 10-pound lateral load simultaneously. This exercise closely replicates problems faced by real-world skyscraper designers. In this lesson, use vector math to analyze the forces exerted on each structural element of the building. x
  • 3
    Design and Build a Cardboard Tower
    Now that you understand the forces your cardboard tower must withstand, conduct a series of compressive and tensile strength experiments to determine the size and shape of your structure's beams, columns, and braces. After completing your design, build the tower using ordinary wood glue and simple tools. Then pile on concrete blocks and marvel at the strength of your creation. x
  • 4
    Bridging with Beams
    Design and build an 8-foot beam bridge capable of carrying a swarm of pedestrians across a small stream. First, consider three alternative concepts, with beams made of identical wood, but of different configurations. Then develop these designs, analyzing their stresses and failure modes before selecting the optimum, building it, and inviting your friends onto the span. x
  • 5
    Make a Suspension Bridge
    Elegant and efficient, the suspension bridge is your next DIY effort. Span the same small stream as in the previous project, but support the deck with suspension cables draped between two 5-foot-tall towers. Analyze the flow of forces through the structural system before designing each element. A 3D computer model helps you plan this impressive project. x
  • 6
    Design a Concrete Sailboat
    It may sound suspiciously like a lead balloon, but a concrete boat can be made to float. Your engineering challenge is to create a concrete sailboat that can operate safely in 10-mph winds. Hydrostatics comes into play in designing a hull with sufficient buoyancy, and aerodynamics enters the picture in designing a sail that doesn't cause too much heeling in the wind. x
  • 7
    Set Sail!
    Build your concrete sailboat. Consider the enhanced strength of a concrete shell that has been formed into a curved shape—a feature exploited in many buildings. Then apply basic aerodynamics and vector mechanics to determine how the wind propels a sailboat—sailing with the wind, into the wind, and at right angles to the wind. Try out these points of sail with your model. x
  • 8
    Make a Radio-Controlled Blimp
    Who has not tied a paper cup to a helium party balloon to make a primitive airship? In this lesson, design and build a far more advanced version: a radio-controlled blimp that you can remotely pilot around your house. Calculate the volume of helium required to lift your blimp and its control unit, borrowed from a toy tank. Use two motor-driven propellers for thrust and control. x
  • 9
    Exploring Aerodynamics
    Start your project on fixed-wing flight the way the Wright brothers did: by building a wind tunnel. Use it to test different wing shapes at varying angles of attack, exploring the phenomena of lift, drag, and stalling. Your goal is to design a wing appropriate for a low-speed model plane, powered only by a few strands of rubber and flying without remote control. x
  • 10
    Build a Model Airplane
    Dig deeper into aerodynamic science so you can choose an airfoil shape and appropriate wingspan, aspect ratio, fuselage length, and stabilizer dimensions for your model plane. Pay special attention to aerodynamic stability and such factors as the dihedral angle of the wings, noting these features on full-size aircraft. Then build the airframe, using wood, tissue paper, and metal wire. x
  • 11
    Take Flight!
    Complete your model plane by assembling a rubber motor that will serve as a source of power. Design, carve, and install an efficient propeller. Learn how to balance your aircraft and adjust its flight characteristics. Then find a large, open field, and try a few test glides to fine-tune the plane's performance. Finally, watch it take wing on a full-power flight. x
  • 12
    Build a Model Helicopter
    Now tinker with helicopter aerodynamics by adapting the classic Penni model helicopter design used by many hobbyists. Discover the importance of countering the main rotor’s torque, and investigate the mechanical genius of the rotor hub—fortunately simpler on our model than on full-size aircraft! With its 16-inch main rotor, your super-light helicopter can safely fly indoors. x
  • 13
    This Is Rocket Science
    Tackle the problem of designing a model rocket that carries a miniature video camera to 500 feet and then returns safely to earth by parachute. In this lesson, focus on selecting an off-the-shelf model rocket engine that can do the job. Use the impulse-momentum principle and thrust curves for various engines to predict your rocket's maximum altitude. x
  • 14
    Build a Rocket
    Put together your model rocket, paying special attention to the engine mount and fins, then giving the completed vehicle a drag-reducing finish. Apply the science of aerodynamics to calculate the required diameter of the parachute. Then check the rocket's stability by determining its center of gravity and center of pressure locations. Your creation is now ready to fly. x
  • 15
    Make an Electric Launch Controller
    Get a taste of electrical engineering by designing and building an electric launch controller that will ignite your rocket engine safely. Design a circuit that meets all code requirements. Use Ohm's law to determine the number of batteries and type of resistor required. Also, get a lesson in proper soldering technique for assembling the circuit. x
  • 16
    Let's Do Launch!
    Finish your launch preparations by building a theodolite to measure the altitude of the rocket's trajectory, building a launch pad, packing the parachute, choosing a safe launch site, setting up the site, and coordinating the activities of the mission control team. Once all systems are go, conduct the countdown and press the firing button... x
  • 17
    A Tale of Three Catapults
    Delve into the history of the most potent artillery weapons in the era before gunpowder: catapults. Examine the workings of the ballista, onager, and trebuchet. Then get started on a model ballista capable of hurling a golf ball 200 feet. Analyze the machine's nylon torsion springs to ensure that they can store enough elastic energy to achieve the required 200-foot range. x
  • 18
    Build a Ballista, Onager, and Trebuchet
    Build your model ballista. Then construct two other types of catapult—the onager and trebuchet—designed such that they store the same amount of energy as your ballista. Field test all three to determine which throws a golf ball farthest. Will the winner be the weapon from the Hellenistic (ballista), late Roman (onager), or medieval era (trebuchet)? You may be surprised! x
  • 19
    Design a Hydraulic Arm
    Plunge into hydraulics, learning how force is transmitted from actuators to hydraulic cylinders through fluid-filled lines. Then use this knowledge to design and build a hydraulically powered mechanical arm that can grasp and manipulate a concrete block—controlled by four hand-operated syringes. Along the way, use 3D printing to fabricate several crucial parts. x
  • 20
    Make a Water Turbine
    Harness the power of moving water by building an impulse turbine capable of lifting a 2.2-pound weight through a distance of 2 feet. First, use Bernoulli's equation to determine the required height of the water reservoir. Next, focus on the turbine, plotting power versus load to determine the turbine diameter that will produce the required power output optimally. Then build! x
  • 21
    Design a Gear Train
    Test your water turbine, comparing its performance to the theoretical ideal. Next, modify it by adding a set of spur gears that will allow the machine to lift a 6-pound weight, which is well beyond its ungeared capacity. Calculate the optimum gear ratio, use laser-cutting to fabricate the gears, install them, and watch a modest stream of water lift a disproportionately heavy mass. x
  • 22
    Make a Mechanical Clock
    The pendulum clock was the standard for precise timekeeping for centuries. Plan and build one using your newly acquired knowledge of gears. Start by exploring why a pendulum keeps accurate time. Then calculate an appropriate pendulum length for the clock. Design the escapement mechanism and gear train, then add a suitable power source to keep the pendulum swinging. x
  • 23
    Design a Motor-Powered Crane
    Test the limits of small, inexpensive, off-the-shelf hobby motors by building a motor-driven crane capable of lifting 100 pounds—a tall order for a motor that weighs only a few ounces! First, construct the world’s simplest electric motor to gain insights about how they work. Then calculate the torque requirements for your crane, and add gears and pulleys to achieve mechanical advantage. x
  • 24
    Creative Design: A Tribute to Rube Goldberg
    Your final DIY project is a tribute to cartoonist Rube Goldberg, famous for sketching machines that perform the simplest tasks by the most complicated means. Accordingly, combine twenty design elements from this course—from airfoil to electric circuit—to create a machine that will click a computer mouse. Professor Ressler offers a solution that produces a surprising outcome. x

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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 353-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 353-page printed course guidebook
  • Project guides
  • Supplemental materials
  • Material lists

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Your professor

Stephen Ressler

About Your Professor

Stephen Ressler, Ph.D.
United States Military Academy, West Point
Dr. Stephen Ressler is Professor Emeritus from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Distinguished Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). A registered Professional Engineer in Virginia, he earned a B.S. from West Point and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University, as well as a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. Professor Ressler's papers on...
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Do-It-Yourself Engineering is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 75.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In awe of his talent Stephen Ressler is my absolute favorite GC instructor. I own all 4 of his courses and hope that he does more. I will probably never build any of the projects that he does in this course but I really enjoyed watching him do them and learned a lot about the science and engineering involved. I was very much impressed by the level of his craftsmanship and now I know how he built those wonderful models in his previous courses. I love to build things but they generally involve 2x4s!
Date published: 2020-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The great-nephews love it! I bought this course for them and I have not seen any episode myself, but they sent me a photo of the trebuchet they built -- very cool!
Date published: 2020-06-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Do-It-Yourself Engineering The textbook which accompanies the set of DVDs is well written. I hope to reverse engineer some of the projects for my elementary school STEM classes.
Date published: 2020-05-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This title leaves no guessing as to expectations Excellent presentations of subjects. This is a great book for any student (and some grown-ups) to view / take part in the understanding of engineering projects.
Date published: 2020-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Ressler is a great instructor Watched this with my 15 year old grandson. He was fascinated, as was I. Ressler uses his creativity to demonstrate engineering concepts. The course is not for everyone, but for the mechanically inclined it is a winner.
Date published: 2020-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from MythBusters with math -- great fun Is it just me, or was anybody else struck by how similar the content of this course is to MythBusters? We have rockets, unusual aircraft, concrete boats, Rube Goldberg machines... There are no completely gratuitous explosions, for better or worse, but there's a lot of similar themes. In fact, I can see Dr Ressler presenting MythBusters but whether he would be more Savage or Heinemann, I'm not sure. For the avoidance of doubt -- a favourable comparison with MythBusters should be taken as flattery. Still, it's all great fun, and backed up with sound math and theory. The math isn't more advanced than high-school level and, although some reviewers have said they would prefer more math, I really think the level is appropriate for this kind of course. Incidentally, the section of out-takes at the end of the course was very funny, and illustrates how difficult if must have been to make all the demonstrations work out correctly for the cameras. I can only guess at how long it took to prepare the course, and how many failed projects never even made the final cut. My one slight concern is this -- if you actually want to build the things demonstrated, or anything like them, you'll likely struggle to find parts suppliers outside the USA. All the contact details given are for US suppliers. The US focus is made even more apparent by the use of ugly US units, and all the horrible conversion factors this entails. I guess this is meant to make the content more accessible for non-specialists, but what non-specialist ever used units like "slugs" anyway? The arithmetic would be a lot simply with SI units, and I believe the presenter admits this somewhere (or maybe in one of his other courses -- I'm not sure).
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Instructor General Ressler is fun to watch and does a great job of blending learning with entertainment.
Date published: 2020-02-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Purchased as a gift I haven't looked to the DVD, but going on the lecture topics, it'll be fantasiic.
Date published: 2020-02-16
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