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Redesigning Engineering with the Studio Method

Harvey Mudd College, an elite undergraduate college with an emphasis on engineering, mathematics, and science, has instituted a studio method approach in its introductory engineering curriculum. The first engineering course, called E4—engineering design—was transformed last year into a project-based course in which students work in small groups to design engineering solutions, analyze examples of good engineering, and learn the fundamentals of engineering design.

Harvey Mudd’s approach draws on the methodology long used in the fine arts and architecture fields. Within the hands-on approach of the studio method, students work in small groups, mentored by teachers who move about the room like artistic masters looking over students’ shoulders.

Students learn from one another as they work through complex, open-ended projects. Something unique about the use of the studio method in this case is that the students are first- and second-year undergraduates with little or no background in engineering.

Their first exposure to engineering concepts and design comes in the form of “mini-lectures” and an opportunity to develop solutions on their own.

“The idea was that rather than us telling them what to do, we would give them an objective and let them work with it,” says Patrick Little, associate professor of engineering management. “This emulates real-world scenarios and allows them to develop an understanding of research design methodology.”

Because there are no lectures in the new course configuration, students are expected to ask questions if they have them. Little, who co-teaches the course with associate professor Mary Cardenas, says, “We’ve moved to a series of ‘just-in-time mini-lectures’ that allow us to intervene when appropriate. It’s interesting that after a while, students become confident and engrossed in their projects enough to wave us away if they’re in the middle of something they don’t want to interrupt.” The mini-lectures cover such topics as conflict management and project management tools. Group discussions focus on overcoming a design problem several of the groups encountered; ethics is also part of the ongoing discussion.

The course consists of two short assignments and a lengthy major project that consumes half of the semester. The shorter assignments last for one to three weeks and incorporate learning functional analysis skills as well as writing and basic research skills. In a recent semester, students were given a deserted island scenario. Stranded with only a box of flares and assorted debris, they were asked to build a working clock using only the available materials. For another assignment, students were given an object to deconstruct. None of the items were expensive, but all of them, from an Etch-a-Sketch to a disposable camera, represented design innovations. In the process of cataloguing the parts and determining their functions, students learned engineering fundamentals, a language for design, and an appreciation for good (and bad) design.

For the half-semester major project, each student team worked with an actual client on a real-life project. Students collaborated with the client through idea and design iterations, culminating in a final report to the client that documented the process and outcome of the team’s work. Some students worked with the Beckman Laser Institute to develop an improved medical device, a tool for transillumination of nasal sinuses. Others helped a local disabled adolescent by developing a “pantsing” machine, a tool that assists him in putting on his pants.
Inherently, everything about the studio method is different from a traditional lecture course. Even the physical space of the studio, Little notes, should be different. “It shouldn’t look like a classroom or a computer lab,” he says. Faculty members have been working with the students to design work spaces that encourage creativity and collaboration, asking students to take brightly colored decorations and organize their own spaces. Some students used the materials to improve the room’s acoustics, and others sought to create more privacy or a sense of individuality for their teams.

Because students come to this course with no previous exposure to the studio method, some of them have a hard time adjusting. Little and Cardenas have been fine-tuning the course based on student feedback, reducing the number of course assignments from four to three, selecting exercises that can be completed within the time constraints of a semester, and providing feedback to students throughout the semester on their performance. Says Little, “Based on student feedback, we’ve revised the grading procedures somewhat. Students were anticipating lower grades than they ultimately received because the scored materials, which were only part of their grade, reflected lower results than they finally received at the end of the semester. The studio method necessitates a different approach to grading, and we have to make sure students understand that.”

For more information, contact Patrick Little at [email protected].

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