Dr Derek Covill cropped head shot

Meet Dr Derek Covill

Derek is the course leader for Design Engineering BEng(Hons), Design Engineering MEng and Design Engineering BEng(Hons) with integrated foundation year. He teaches in a range of areas such as mechanics of materials, mechanical design, computer-aided design/engineering, and digital fabrication.

The way I like to teach

I am a big fan of practical learning, where theory is complemented with practical activities. For example when teaching mechanics of materials, I am keen for students to get hands on to use our materials testing lab to characterise a range of real materials using the theory covered in class. I also try to take a ‘triangulated’ approach to these topics where possible. For example, when comparing real world experimental data with numerical models (e.g. FEA) and then using simplified analytical (i.e. formula based) models. Importantly, we then follow this up with discussions around the benefits, limitations and assumptions made in each of these approaches. 

I’m also a fan of trying to do project-based learning, and to try to make this fun! We run a series of group-based design projects relating to the design and testing of water rockets. Water rockets make for a great project because they can be very easy to make – a soft-drink bottle, some cardboard fins, tape, a cork and a bicycle pump is all you need to get a water rocket in the air. And even with such rudimentary materials the performance of the rocket is quite astounding, going 100+ meters in the air. From there, we can use a range of analysis tools to measure and evaluate the performance of the rocket. We can go into the wind tunnel to measure its aerodynamic behaviour. And of course we can test it in the field, instrument it with low-cost microcontrollers (e.g. Arduino or BBC Micro:bit), and we can use video analysis to take measurements of attitude, velocity and acceleration. It’s great fun, but equally we can do some great, deep engineering analysis on this using a range of advanced tools, so it makes for a great engineering project!

What I love about teaching

I really enjoy empowering students with these tools, to show the impact they can have and how we can do amazing things with them. Also I enjoy working seeing students grow and develop. I try to work with students in ways that help them learn how to be resourceful, how to take on a professional mindset so that they can learn how to learn and develop, but also that this is an exciting, simulating and fun subject to be involved in.

How I involve my students in my research

I recently had a placement student working on a research project to create a software tool for bicycle manufacturers to help them understand how different types of steel tubes available on the market compared in terms of their structural behaviour. This project was funded by Santander for 6 weeks over the summer period and is part of ‘the steel bicycle project’ (TSBP), a wider research project which aims to raise awareness of key scientific principles that relate to steel bicycle design and to support frame builders in their quest to understand and improve the performance of their bicycles. Here’s a link with some more information on that project and with the software tool available to download: http://iberg.recherche.usherbrooke.ca/tsbp/index.html

How we support our students’ learning

We have a great range of equipment to use on campus. Our wind tunnel is a really useful piece of kit, our materials testing lab, our student-led sustainable, technology, engineering projects (STEP) lab which is run by students. We have some great fabrication machines, lathes, mills, conversational CNC machines and welding capabilities as well as fantastic 3-axis and 5-axis CNC machines, laser cutters, a metal plasma cutter, vacuum formers and a wide range of 3D printers and laser scanning. Then there’s specialist software relating to design, structural (FEA) and fluids (CFD) simulation (e.g. Solidworks, Fusion 360, ANSYS), material property databases (Granta Edupack), programming and numerical simulation (MATLAB and Simulink) and electronics development (Proteus). It feels like we can make and do anything on campus, we have so many great toys to play with!

My favourite place in Sussex

I am a keen runner and cyclist so I really love the south downs. It is such a peaceful, majestic place to be – away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but yet so close to it. I like finding places where there are no signs of humanity – no roads, no buildings, no traffic noise – it’s actually really easy to find places like that just up the road!

The three people that I’d invite to a dinner party would be…

Firstly, the Dali Lama – because if I were religious, I would be Buddhist, and I like being around nice people who make me feel happy and comfortable – I think I would feel like that if I were having dinner with him.

Secondly, Neil Gershenfeld (MIT professor) – because he is the ultimate Macgyver who can design and make anything – I love the idea of being resourceful to the point that we can design and make anything we want – I feel I would learn so much from just being around him.

Finally, Keith Floyd – because then I could ask him to cook an amazing meal with me, and he would just crack me up – what a character!

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