Design Teaching

Conceptual DesignCableCar

During 2011-13 I worked with Oliver Broadbent of ThinkUp and Tim Stratford of the University of Edinburgh to develop a new approach to conceptual design teaching in structural engineering.  Our thinking was that the early, conceptual stages of design are the most important in determining whether a project will be successful or not, and also the  least likely to be automated in the future.  Therefore conceptual design should be a major part of undergraduate education, in contrast to the traditional approach to design teaching that focusses on often code-based, detailed design.  The outcomes of our work include a completely new project-based design course, freely available teaching resources and a presentation to the Institution of Structural Engineers.  Full details of our approach and thinking are  here

Conceptual Design Teaching

Crane buildingTools for Engineering Design

Following the developments in teaching conceptual design (above) In 2013 I worked again with Tim Stratford and also Martin Crapper on an “engineering tools” course delivered in second year to undergraduate Civil Engineers at Edinburgh. The aim was two-fold: to give students confidence in working on complex, open-end problems, and experience of using tools that help with solving these problems.  The course had several inter-woven parts:

Problem Solving Techniques:  We discussed approaches to solving open-ended engineering problems.  The class worked through a range of problems, some short, some longer, that encouraged iteration in the design process, thinking about how to communicate designs, and developing confidence in approaching vaguely defined briefs, as are common in engineering practice.

A highlight was a crane design and build project with the catch being one group designed a crane while another built it.  Without good communication this is impossible!

Engineering Communication: Good communication in design is vital.  It also comes in lots of forms and not just the formal drawings that often required in undergraduate programmes.  We emphasised visual communication in the form of sketching (using the resources available at the excellent Workshed website) and by insisting most assessment was based on sketches and drawings, not text.  We also discussed how calculations, both hand and Excel based, are best presented.

Software Tools: An Introduction to software tools common in engineering design.  We focussed on Excel and ProgeCad (an AutoCad clone) because these are likely to be useful to all graduates. Traditional teaching methods are poor for learning how to use this sort of software (a lecture of “click this and then that” is deathly dull both to give and listen to). Indeed, learning to use a specific version of a specific piece of software to solve a specific problem is training rather than education and not a good use of an undergraduate curriculum.

We felt a more engaging way of teaching would be to discuss the sorts of problems software is good (and bad) for solving. We set examples of these types of problem that students could try on their own and discuss with each other and lecturers.  We assumed that all students are sufficiently capable and computer literate to learn how to use software quickly and focussed instead on teaching ways of using it as a tool to solve problems.

The course was very well received by students and enjoyable to teach.  Full details are available in this paper


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