Engineering students learn to draw and make paper models to generate and convey ideas before using digital tools to develop them creatively.
Along with colleagues at the College, staff in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering spent the summer researching how to turn hands-on courses into viable online modules. Although digital tools are central to the day-to-day work of the modern engineer, the Sketching and Modeling course focuses on sketching as the first building block for idea generation.
Sketching and Modeling teaches first-year civil engineering students the basics of sketching, how to build complex paper models from sketches, and then how to use design software and parametric plug-ins such as Rhino and Grasshopper to numerically model the same structures. Once the design is in the computer program it is easy to use it to play with the design, for example seeing what happens to the structure if the position or angle of a cut or a bend is changed.
Course tutor Dr Andrew Phillips explained, “Sketching remains a very important part of engineering because it allows you to convey creative ideas very quickly. While today’s engineers are all digital engineers, we want to encourage our students to use digital tools creatively rather than just as a way to verify a design.
“It was a real challenge to adapt this course to a fully online module. We asked ourselves simple things like if the students would have paper to fold. We were concerned that digital teaching did not allow enough time for students to consolidate their learning of the parametric aspects of the software. But it turned out that this cohort of students was as good at learning Grasshopper as ever, if not at a higher level.
“Having to think through the challenges of online delivery has enhanced the course, however it will be delivered in the future. The recordings of the teaching sessions were really beneficial and we will keep them when we resume teaching in the classroom.
The sketching and modeling course focuses on group learning. Students are divided into groups of 5-6 and they remain in these groups for the duration of the course. Tutors gave advice on how to organize online group sessions to get the most out of them, including ensuring that all students have the opportunity to present their first sketches. Each group had a private channel within Teams, which allowed them to share and discuss ideas and designs. Students were encouraged to upload photos of their designs and tutors came in and gave feedback on the designs.
First-year student Frame Hiransrisoontorn said, “The online drawing and modeling course was a new experience for us and the teachers. The group project was initially quite tricky as neither of us had seen each other face to face, so it took some time before we could start working together effectively. However, by the end of the module, most groups have produced an artifact of comparable quality to all previous years. »
Design in stages
The course took students through several stages of learning. After generating several sketch ideas, students constructed a paper model of their chosen pop-up design. Then they designed visual instructions on how to build their paper model which was tested when another group tried to build their design. The final step was to replicate their structure in Grasshopper, then produce several versions that could be put together to form a new artifact, with which course tutors could interact.
Rami Al-Shukairi, a first-year student, said, “Remote learning has underscored the importance of continuous communication with all members of the group. My group followed the deadlines set by each other to monitor progress, this allowed us to adjust and reshape our work based on feedback given by the speakers. Mastering complex software such as Rhino/Grasshopper was difficult at first, but the readily available help from the lecturers made the process easier.
To replace the usual final “pin-up critique” session, each group used a Google Jamboard to display their digital model alongside accompanying design content. Tutors and other students were then able to ask questions and critique the design. Instead of a physical exhibit of the models in the Skempton building as in previous years, a virtual exhibit built by one of the tutors (thanks to Luke Lapira) allowed students to view and explore the work of others.
The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering offers a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
The MEng in Civil Engineering includes a number of individual and group projects, including the sketching and modeling course.
The Sketching and Modeling course is a collaborative industry course, with Dr Fernando Madrazo-Aguirre (COWI) and Vladimir Marinov (set engineers) leading the analog and digital portions alongside Dr Andrew Phillips.