The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) has selected ME Professor James Barber to receive the 2010 Archie Higdon Distinguished Educator Award. This award is presented by the ASEE Mechanics Division, and recognizes one individual each year for distinguished contributions to engineering mechanics education. The award will be presented in June at the Mechanics Division Banquet at ASEE’s Annual Conference that will take place in Louisville, Kentucky.
Barber began his career in education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, in 1969, where he served first as a lecturer and later as a reader in solid mechanics. He moved to the US in 1981 and started teaching in the ME department at the University of Michigan, where he has been building a reputation as an outstanding professor ever since. In a letter of recommendation for Barber’s nomination for the ASEE award, his colleague and fellow ME Professor Noel Perkins wrote, “[Barber] has developed a hugely effective teaching style that fosters deep understanding in lieu of memorization, the simple as opposed to the complex, and intuition as a guide.” Perkins continued, saying, “Jim’s teaching philosophy closely parallels his philosophy in research. In both, he first strives to understand what is important, not what is complicated. He possesses a phenomenal, natural ability to distill the most vexing problem down to its core elements, exposing the important idea underlying it, and then resolving it.”
Like Perkins, many of Barber’s other colleagues in the ME department recognize his natural ability to impart complicated ideas to his students in an accessible and understandable format. In support of Barber’s nomination, ME Professor Dennis Assanis wrote, “Professor Barber’s teaching philosophy is to introduce new concepts in very simple and concrete contexts, often using house-hold props…so that he can appeal to the students’ intuitive grasp of the physical world. By challenging the students to break, bend, or twist the simple props, he can illustrate to them complex concepts and how simple engineering analysis reinforces our instinctive knowledge.”
Barber has applied his gift for engineering education beyond the classroom, as well. He is the author of two widely-used textbooks on engineering mechanics; his undergraduate text Intermediate Mechanics of Materials (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and his graduate text Elasticity (Springer, 1992) are used in universities around the world. He has also authored an extensive amount of supplementary materials for Elasticity, now in its third edition, which is available online. Said Assanis, “Jim’s prolific authorship of textbooks is symptomatic of his desire to expose and reinforce the philosophical underpinnings of his subject.” Barber frequently receives correspondence from his readers asking for solutions to elasticity problems, and he responds to these inquiries with the same kind of dedication and passion for the subject that he shows his students.
As a theoretician, Barber’s research rarely involves experimentation or even the writing of computer programs. “Most of what I do is essentially mathematics,” he said. “The ultimate to me is trying to prove theorems at a high level of generality.” Because of this generality, Barber’s work is hugely relevant to an array of engineering applications. “I’m always looking for material where things that I see in particular contexts can be generalized,” he remarked. Barber works primarily in collaboration with other researchers and engineers, such as his current partnership with Oxford University and Rolls-Royce. These partners handle the details of his work’s various applications, allowing Barber to concentrate on the theoretical side of the projects.
“The criterion for what I work on is whether I enjoy it or not,” he said. Barber realizes this kind of freedom is a luxury, and he feels grateful to have always been able to follow his own interests. All of his work deals with contact mechanics and he is perhaps best known for his investigations of the effect of frictional heating and thermoelastic deformation on the performance of brakes and clutches. In recent years, the majority of his efforts have been directed toward two specific topics: the influence of friction in elastic systems and the effect of fine-scale surface roughness on mechanical and electrical contact.
In his work in elastic systems with friction, Barber examines how oscillating loads can cause periodic slip at the frictional interfaces, leading to fretting fatigue and possibly catastrophic failure. A prominent application of this effect arises in aircraft engines, where vibration can lead to the development of fretting fatigue cracks where blades meet turbine disks. Barber’s interest in this issue is the mathematics behind predicting whether periodic slip will occur in a given system and if so, to what extent. In many cases, slip occurs at first, but then, as Barber explains, “the system crawls into a corner so that it doesn’t have to move anymore.” At this position, called shakedown, the system no longer experiences slip. Barber studies how in some systems the long term behavior depends on the initial conditions.
The other chief area of Barber’s recent research considers the contact of rough surfaces. Surface roughness has historically been characterized as a set of asperities of differing radius and height. Under a powerful microscope, this unevenness is revealed to have another, smaller set of asperities forming its surface, and so on as the scale diminishes and the surface details become more and more complex. Scholars have attempted to use the mathematics of fractals to describe this issue, in order to avoid working with a particular length scale. However, Barber’s approach to the problem differs. “My feeling is you can only make sense of this if, instead of considering the complete fractal surface, you start with a coarse description of the surface, add one level of finer scale, and see what changes,” he explained. Using the process of mathematical induction, he has succeeded in predicting what happens to the contact geometry and the electrical contact resistance as one increases magnification and descends into finer and finer scales.
For his dedication to his students, his natural expertise as a teacher, and his passion for his work as an engineer and a theoretician, it’s clear that, as Assanis wrote, Barber “is the epitome of people whom [the Archie Higdon] award is designed to honor.”