By Judith Solomon
At the University of Michigan, classes dedicated to integrative learning are preparing students to take advantage of cross-disciplinary collaboration. These classes align with the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which has long advocated for introducing the foundational skills for collaboration at the undergraduate level to meet the need for solutions to today’s challenges.
A trio of University of Michigan instructors in Ann Arbor, MI, recently completed three years of team teaching a collaborative course called SmartSurfaces. John Marshall, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Art & Design, and assistant professor, Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning; Max Shtein, associate professor, Materials Science and Engineering; and Karl Daubmann, associate professor of Architecture and Urban Planning, worked together to design and deliver a project-based, think-tank-style learning experience for undergraduate students.
Smart surfaces are physical systems capable of adapting to changing information and environmental conditions. For example, the Hug Shirt, profiled in X-OLOGY Winter 2008, is a smart surface garment containing sensors that “feel” the strength and warmth of a sender’s embrace and transmit them through mobile phones to the wearer.
“Surfaces are where things happen,” says Marshall. “A smart surface might have embedded electronics. It might have behavioral or performance characteristics. It is an intentionally under-defined thing — we don’t want to narrow the scope of what is possible.”
In SmartSurfaces, Marshall says, “We aren’t just interested in teaching the students what we already know — their world needs more than that. We know today that if you ‘solve’ a localized problem, you have likely caused another problem somewhere else,” says Marshall. “We have more data to draw upon and instant access to it anywhere in the world.”
SmartSurfaces offers students from engineering, art and architecture unique opportunities to share their expertise and learn about cultural differences across specialties as they work their way through a challenging curriculum.
The class meets once a week for six hours, with all three professors in attendance. In the first few weeks, students learn about problem and constraint definition, practice structured brainstorming and gain skills in areas such as parametric modeling, digital fabrication, microcontroller programming and circuit building. They work with Arduino, an open source electronics prototyping platform conceived for artists and designers to create interactive objects or environments. Students collaborate in teams that adjust as the weeks go by, with care taken to ensure members from each discipline are represented. The teams are given a lot of responsibility, including scheduling their own meetings to design, build and test projects that grow more sophisticated each week.
In the second phase of the course, the students build and test functional designs. Each team is entrusted with a budget of $3,000. All three professors, expert guest speakers and the full class critique the projects.
The first project involved devising surfaces comprising at least nine interlocking components that were no larger than 3 feet by 3 feet. Students had to agree on temporal, mechanical and environmental criteria. They documented their process through multiple techniques, including a decision tree to identify solutions and consequences, and a blog to explain their team roles and prototypes, as well as regularly presenting their work. Subsequent assignments required more elaborate criteria that required students to share knowledge and continue to develop in thinking and working collaboratively.
A project defined
The 2011 class was the third iteration of SmartSurfaces. Focusing on power, students worked with a real client, Power House Productions, a Detroit nonprofit that implements stabilization strategies in a neighborhood near Hamtramck, MI. The organization uses art and cultural resources to create spaces for artists to develop long-term creative projects for Detroit’s revitalization.
For Power House, students developed off-grid, solar-tracking illuminated surfaces using Arduino and LEDs. As the weeks went by, more criteria were added, including tracking the sun’s movement using photoresistors and a motor, and including photovoltaic cells, all without the help of public utilities.
The instructors found that teaching problem solving across multiple bodies of practice required a major shift in approach, from building the learning experience to delivering curriculum and identifying learning outcomes.
“It’s a lot more work for the educators and requires more coordination. Our goal is more about learning than teaching. We want students to concentrate on how they are working together and maximizing the skills and aptitudes of each team member,” says Marshall.
SmartSurfaces was one of 14 offerings funded through the university’s Multidisciplinary Learning and Team Teaching (MLTT) Initiative to support team teaching and multidisciplinary courses and degree programs for undergraduates.
Two former students, one from Art & Design and the other from Materials Science & Engineering, have subsequently pursued graduate studies in architecture. Another student from Materials Science & Engineering has since become an engineer at Toyota.
Jason Prasad of the 2010 class says, “It was addicting learning how to prototype and coming up with new ideas and how to execute them. I found I wanted to continue being a tinkerer of sorts.”
Prasad chose to take more classes in electrical engineering and computer science, and added a multidisciplinary minor to acquire more skills in the new way of thinking and practice.
“SmartSurfaces left me with an entrepreneurial mindset with respect to what I learn, think and execute. In a traditional class setting you can only achieve 100 percent. Here the reward is anything but the letter grade. It is the skill sets and methods you learn and their relevancy to the real world.” Prasad is now pursuing a master’s of science in architecture.
The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching conducted evaluations of all the MLTT Initiative courses. The results have been very positive, with the conclusion that the SmartSurfaces students exhibited “profound increases in communication, creative thinking and critical thinking.”
Marshall reports that the next step is to make the course sustainable. Efforts are under way to find a sponsor to continue funding support, ideally an industrial organization that understands the value of “exposing employees to a cross-disciplinary mode of problem identification and solving.”
Smart Spaces for Hands-on Learning
The SmartSurfaces student teams were given access to a plethora of working spaces, specialized tools, equipment and expertise at the University of Michigan. Traditional courses within the three disciplines would typically be constrained to using what was available within their own schools. The course began with a tour of available resources from all three disciplines, along with an orientation for accessing training and usage of the various facilities and equipment. Students were responsible for arranging working time for their teams. Individual team members were able to use their own experience to teach their teams how to use specific equipment or processes. Although not required to develop identical levels of expertise, they were provided with numerous opportunities to practice and benefit from peer-to-peer learning as they expanded their individual skills and abilities.
The course met in a unique space called Design Lab One, a 2,500-square-foot room located in the James and Ann Duderstadt Center. Flexible work areas contain white boards and configurable furniture, and work in progress is not required to be cleared away each night. Design Lab One offers computers, a soldering workbench and a host of tools and equipment, along with advanced student consultants and experts to support the course work.
Students also had access to A&D Studios, for work in fibers, metal and ceramics, as well as the Digital Fabrication Lab (FABLab) at Taubman College. The FABLab is one of only a few academic institutions worldwide that uses robotic automation to perform both subtractive and additive manufacturing processes for architectural fabrication research. Within this facility are specialized equipment such as Computer Numerical Controlled routers for processing plywood or plastics; a three-axis abrasive water jet cutter for precision cutting of steel and stone; rapid prototyping machines for 3D printing; laser cutters; and a complete wood and metal shop.
SmartSurfaces Inspired by the Natural World
Each year, SmartSurfaces focuses on a different theme. In 2009, the students were challenged to develop heliotropic smart surfaces. Heliotropism refers to the effect of sunlight on the growth and orientation of plants. Student teams were required to design, build, program and test smart surfaces that harvested solar energy. The student projects included:
• A solar cell array, inspired by the mimosa pudica plant’s ability to pull away from external stimuli, which can avoid damage from precipitation through movement.
• A modular, multi-aperture window using rotating wood panels and light-dependent resistors to maintain a consistent light level.
• A lighting system powered by photosynthesis in which algae embedded in an architectural array are stimulated by motion to give off a bioluminescent glow.
The 2010 student teams focused on biomimetic smart surfaces. Biomimicry is an emerging field that studies natural models, systems, processes and elements in order to find sustainable solutions to human problems in areas such as architecture, health and technology. Some of the projects included:• A neural window reef platform in which clusters of robots can communicate wirelessly with other robot clusters to share information and respond to changing environmental conditions.
• A wall comprising multiple panels with geometries that respond to motion and proximity by transmitting and reflecting light, giving the viewer the illusion of leaves blowing in the wind (see photo, page 20).
• An installation of various LEDs that diffusely illuminate a wall made from straws, which responds to motion to give the viewer the illusion of playing with fireflies.