Design-Oriented Courses: Blending Theory with Physical Fabrication
During the current semester, I have been teaching a section of GEEN (General Engineering) 1400, a course primarily for first-year and incoming engineering students. My section of the course, offered for the first time this year, focuses on the engineering of Leonardo da Vinci; the students explore da Vinci’s notebooks and then use a variety of novel fabrication tools in our lab to recreate his brilliant designs. For the students, this curriculum provides an encounter with the (often-neglected) historical and biographical elements of engineering-Leonardo is an irresistibly fascinating personality and the Renaissance, a golden era of early engineering. At the same time, however ,the students employ state-of-the-art devices and computational techniques as a means of rethinking this beautiful tradition of engineering. Our lab is equipped with both a computer-controlled #D prototyper and laser cutter, as well as a variety of traditional machine tools. It should be mentioned that the GEEN 1400 students are currently, as of this writing, working on their still-unfinished larger-scale final products.
I would like to extend the basic theme behind this course in several potentially exciting directions. One possibility would be to design a more general course in the history of engineering, integrating elements of design and historical study. Such a course could involve students in the recreation of important ideas in the history of technology – e.g., in the use of waterpower, the design of clockwork, the manufacture of textiles and paper, and so forth. (I have recently submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation suggesting course development of this sort of engineering.) Other possibilities might incorporate design and fabrication into the study of science and mathematics: for example, a curriculum in the design and recreation of important historical scientific instruments, or a course focused on the creation of small-scale scientific instruments for home or amateur use; or a course on the design of mathematical puzzles and games (e.g., topical puzzles), or mathematical artwork more generally. One particularly interesting avenue that I would like to pursue, would be a collaboration with the students or faculty in psychology and the fine arts, focusing on the design and creation of physical artifacts hat creatively represent optical illusions and other interesting visual phenomena.
Essentially, then, the larger agenda that I would like to pursue is one in which engineering and the design are integrated with more traditionally “theoretical” study. Indeed, the time is right for this sort of integration, given the advent of powerful new design software and computer-controlled fabrication tools. Rather than viewing computers as abstract desktop devices, we can instead begin to view them as the centerpieces of a new sort of “shop”; and I believe that this new view of computers can have tremendously innovative and important education consequences.