"I think we had this idea that this wasn't so much a class, but a first step in changing the world."
This is how John Marshall describes SmartSurfaces, an innovative, multi-disciplinary team-taught course that began last semester. Funded by a special grant initiated by President Coleman's office, the course was an experiment in many ways:
First, it would be taught be three faculty from three different schools on campus: John Marshall from Art & Design, Karl Daubmann from Architecture and Max Shtein from Engineering. The course would meet in the neutral territory of Design Lab 1 in the Duderstadt Center.
Twenty four students - eight students each from each of the schools could enroll in the course. In teams of six, with two students from each discipline, the students would build a real-world project focused on solar energy harvesting. The goal would be to create a heliotropic smart surface, that is, a surface that adapts and responds to its environmental conditions, in this case, the Sun. Finally, just to up the ante, each student team would be given a budget of $3,000 to complete their project.
Soon after the course was listed in the A&D curriculum, academic services told John, "You could auction off places for the next course, this one was so popular!"
But, though team-teaching and multi-disciplinary learning opportunities are hot topics these days, the logistics and reality of making these kinds of courses work is another matter entirely. After receiving the go ahead from the Provost's office, the teaching team had to figure out exactly how they would manage the teaching, budgets and the inherent complications in blending multiple skill levels, disciplines and ways of thinking into a single semester course.
As John says, "We realized we had to start with ourselves. If we couldn't work together effectively, how could we expect the students to?" So during the summer months, John, Karl and Max met every Wednesday for breakfast at the Northside Grill. With students arriving from different backgrounds and school cultures, they had to think carefully about skill-building, scheduling and how to structure the collaboration so the students could actually build something by the end of the semester.
Problem-Solving Through Making
So, in September 2009, the 24 undergraduate artists, designers, architects and engineers met for the first SmartSurfaces class on North Campus.
The class met for six hours every Friday for a semester. There would be only 13 classes for the semester so each class counted if they were going to learn complex skills such as parametric modeling, digital fabrication, how to harvest solar energy and program microcontrollers.
The students' first task seemed simple - working in teams, they had to deposit sand into three different locations, using only cardboard, string, duct tape, box cutters, dowel rod, wire, paper clips, binder clips, rubber bands, and sand. After this task, and throughout the semester, students recorded their thoughts in individual blogs. Their entries describe the difficulties and benefits of solving real-world problems and working with diverse, multi-disciplinary groups in terms that would reoccur many times throughout the semester:
Well, this is going to be a really interesting course.
...it was interesting working with students from other disciplines. The engineering prof, Max Shtein, made an interesting point about the disparity of knowledges that the different disciplines had, say he started talking about 1, 2 and 3 point perspective, only 2/3rds of the class (designers and architects) would really understand what he was talking about. But if he asked us to differentiate some equation, probably only 1/3rd (engineers) would know what to do.
— Peter Hall, School of Art & Design
The first day of class was everything I expected and more.
This is exactly the kind of class I need to get some hands-on real-world experience as a product designer, rather than the over-conceptualized classroom projects that art students are often required to do. Yay! Super excited!
— Rachel Boswell, School of Art & Design
And so the class embarked on a journey of problem-solving through making, culminating in their final (funded) project which they would have only seven weeks to complete: a 'heliotropic smart surface.'
Weekly "tasks" taught students the basic building blocks - physical computing, parametric modeling, and digital fabrication - that they would need to create their smart surfaces.
At the end of the semester, the four final projects were revealed: a "feel good machine", "automatic Venitian blinds", a lighting system powered by photosynthesis, and a self-protecting solar array.
A New Literacy
So, did they change the world? John Marshall realizes this was an ambitious goal.
"What actually happened is that the course changed people."
All these students learned both the power of collaboration and how to refine their problem-solving skills through making.
As John sees it, this is the new literacy that needs to make its way back into the Academy. "For so long, physical labor has been exiled from academic work. Even engineers who used to tinker now primarily work with mathematical models and learn to think theoretically first. What was interesting about this class was that the Art & Design students really brought something to the table. When it came to actually making something that works in real life, they had a leg up. They were used to building and figuring out how to make something work by actually making it first."
The course is set for round two for Fall, 2010. The subject? Biomimetic SmartSurfaces. Enrollment begins April 5th.
Students reflect on the course:
...I have never done anything like I have done in the past few months.
I had never seen any of my efforts come to fruition like I have in SmartSurfaces. ...it has provided the opportunity to manifest time and effort into something tangible (and impressive, according to many of my friends). I have realized that one of the qualities that are lacking among many of people coming out of the engineering school is not the ability to come up with a great idea, or even to design and refine that idea, but the ability to follow all of the way through and actually MAKE the thing.
— Neil Poulin, Material Science and Engineering
I will say that this semester, this class, has been the most valuable class that I have taken at Michigan.
The principles I learned, the people I met, the discussions I had... it was life-changing. Max, John, and Karl were right, not surprisingly.
— Michael Mathieu, Material Science and Engineering
It was an incredible amount of work, and an incredible amount of time, and quite a bit of money (Grants are awesome!), and something that I can't wait to show off in my portfolio.... Even though we sometimes felt like guinea pigs as students,
the course was a great one and one that defines the Michigan difference.
— Pete Hall, School of Art & Design
I need team projects, I like them, team dynamics and all, because
I feel part of something bigger and better than what I can do alone...
— Rachel Boswell, School of Art & Design