Dr. Norm Asper - Professor Emeritus

My thoughts on teaching undergraduate Engineering
and Design


After thirty seven years teaching in the School of Engineering at The College of New Jersey, I retired from full time teaching in June 2006. I must admit that I missed the connection to the students and faculty, and drove over to campus often just to have lunch and chat. Since I continue teaching as an adjunct faculty, my friends question my retirement. My response is,” I retired from a full time faculty position, not from teaching”. Absent full time faculty responsibilities, I have had time to collect my thoughts concerning my teaching experiences during these past years. I came to the conclusion that posting these thoughts on my web site may very well be the appropriate format with which to share these thoughts. I would appreciate your comments.

Engineering Senior Design Project Advisement

The Anti-Adviser – Dr. Norm Asper, October 2006

OK – I admit it. Like many before me, I also built a boat in my parents’ basement and couldn’t get it out. Well, maybe it’s not as bad as all that. The year was 1948, and I was 14 years old. Using my best teenage calculations, I convinced myself that the boat would clear the ceiling on its way up the stairs.  But just as a hedge on that bet, I assembled the frame and tried to get that out – it wouldn’t go. Not to be deterred, I disassembled the frame, loaded all of the materials on my wagon and hauled them to my Dad’s grocery store. I completed my project in the grocery store’s basement, and even had a conveyer to bring out the finished boat.

In retrospect, I think my biggest problem with this project was that I was working alone. I didn’t have anyone with which to bounce around ideas. My only real technical resource was an article in Popular Mechanics Magazine. It was the pictures and story from this magazine that I used to design that first boat. Although the project, to my 14-year-old standards was a success (since I used the boat throughout the summers of my high school years), the design and fabrication process was less than desirable with numerous fits and starts and re-starts. I wonder what would have happened if I had another set of eyes following this process, with the experience to offer advice.

This solitary shortcoming raised its ugly head again the following year. Still too young to drive, I decided that I needed “wheels”. I really had my heart set on that “Whizzer” gasoline engine that some of my friends had on their bicycles, but the engine cost more than a new bicycle and I couldn’t afford either.  My salvation came from some friendly service station owners on the corner near my dad’s grocery store. They convinced me that an automobile generator would work perfectly as a DC motor. Armed with a donated “motor”, a used battery, and a switch from their junk box, with my trusty wagon, I set off for home. I had picked up a bike from the curb on a previous “junk day” (I still can’t pass up a good find, and I certainly wasn’t going to cut up my “good bike”), so I set about bending cutting and bolting together my new found treasures. This time even back issues of Popular Mechanics were of no help. As a matter of fact I had never even seen an “electric bike”, but I forged ahead with the confidence of a 15 year old.

Dealing with the now familiar fits and starts of my solitary efforts, I eventually got the electric bike to run. Boy did it ever run – a whole lot faster than I had even dreamed. It only had one speed, full throttle. Acceleration was not sparkling, but as it developed speed, it got scarier and scarier. I never did find out just how fast it would go. I chickened out.  Compound this scary speed with the notion that I had spent my entire time trying to make the bike run; getting the bike to stop had been only a passing interest. No worries, the caliper brakes of the found bicycle were untouched by my modifications. Of course these brakes were never meant to resist all the added weight of the motor and battery, and this fact led to a number of harrowing experiences.  When my mother found out what I was doing, she forbid me to ever ride “that thing” again. As it turned out however, I was now 16, and I could get my driver’s license. With my dad’s “47 Studebaker” (we lived in South Bend), I had wheels. This simply led to a whole new set of harrowing experiences, but that’s another story.

Since these projects are fondly remembered, the struggle that typified the process from original concept to finished product, the fits and starts, and the problems that kept me awake at night, have all diminished with time. In reality though, I am sure that an adviser could have helped me make more intelligent decisions, or point out overlooked items. What kind of adviser could help make the design and fabrication process move ahead more efficiently, without taking over the project and making it their own? The beauty of these projects is that they were mine, and mine alone. Would I still feel the same about those projects if I had an expert adviser looking over my shoulder throughout the process?

It was ten years later when the faculty at Ball State University forced me to think about the role of an adviser, when we began talking about a teaching technique known as “Directed Discovery”, a teaching technique based on the “Socratic Method”. At that point the reality of these early struggles came back into focus. How might those projects have progressed differently had I the benefit of an adviser who could pose questions in such a way that my answers could lead me to discover different directions, and new strategies that I obviously failed to come up with on my own? “Do you think that those caliper brakes are good enough to get you stopped; what about added weight? Can you tilt the boat to a steep enough angle to get it up the stairs without running into the ceiling of the stairway?” Obviously, to be true to the Directed Discovery Technique, the adviser would have to know my strengths and weaknesses in order to pose these questions in such a way that they could capitalize on my strengths and help me develop my weaknesses. From this vantage point then there is no way that the adviser would be able to take over ownership of the project to the point that it would no longer be “mine and mine alone”.

It was after that Ball State experience that I first found myself in the shoes of the adviser, and that I also found myself still thoroughly embracing the concept of project advisement through Directed Discovery. The first task that I associated with this type of project advisement was recognizing a potential problem or hazard, the second was assessing the student’s strengths, and finally finding a way to pose questions that could use those strengths to solve the problem or avoid the hazard.

As you might think, the first task of problem recognition became much easier with experience; I had seen many of these problems before, or I had seen others solve similar problems. Experience then was my best resource supporting this step. For those areas that I didn’t understand, or was unfamiliar, I simply had to turn to research for support. In many cases I was doing the same research that the students were doing – just trying to stay a chapter ahead.

The second task was not as easily handled, that of understanding the student’s strengths. In the late 1960s, which was the beginning of my active involvement with college level project advisement, the student to faculty ratio with most projects was one-to-one, or two-to-one. Since there was only one or perhaps two students that I had to get to know very well, the Socratic Method worked very well. No wonder Socrates was hailed as the world’s greatest teacher. The image of Socrates and a student on opposite ends of the same log is not too far removed from this setting, and that was the setting in which I found myself.

The third task of the Directed Discovery process then became the structuring of questions in such a way that they could capitalize on the student’s strengths and lead them to some logical discovery. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I overheard an adviser say to a group, “This is what we are going to do”. I could just see the students’ ownership of that project, along with all the benefits to be derived from that ownership, slipping away.

Feeling that I had finally developed the panacean approach to the project advisement process, I set out to develop more and more complex student research projects: a propane fueled, Ford powered Toyota “Clean Air Car”; an electric car controlled by a Pulse-Width Modulator (a motor control design still in its infancy); and a number of solar power units, wind power units, and several human powered vehicles. I felt that there was no limit to what I could get students to accomplish, but it was still disconcerting when I overheard students discussing my techniques as an adviser – “He is not much of an adviser, he never gives any advice. He just asks a never ending series of questions”. But as I thought more about it, that is exactly the setting that I was trying to develop. I wondered if Socrates would have approved.

It was in 1983 that I read an article about SAE’s sponsoring an intercollegiate competition in the development of all-terrain vehicles. Feeling full of myself, I was sure that we at Trenton State College (the college’s name at that time) could compete with engineering graduates from such participating institutions as MIT, UVA, Princeton, Georgia Tech., and Clemson. What a great recruiting device this could be if we were to be successful at this level. Of course this was a much more complex project than those I had started in the past. It would certainly take more than one or two students, and it would take considerable funding for both the vehicle development and travel to the competition venues. The latter meant funding travel expenses for the team to Canada, Tennessee, Louisiana, or Florida. The closest venue turned out to be Fort Belviore, VA.

Every part of the advisement process became much more complex. There were a myriad of technical issues that I knew little about, or had even seen before let alone having seen similar problems solved by others. No longer was my past experience adequate. I had to research almost every aspect of the vehicle design and fabrication. With four or six or more students, I no longer had the Socratic luxury of one student on the other end of my log. I had to try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of those students to be true to my Directed Discovery advisement technique. You can see the difficulty in posing questions that could capitalize on students’ strengths while developing their weaknesses in this sort of setting. To say that I fumbled my way through those first years of group projects would be an understatement. That is not to say that we were unsuccessful. In our first year we won the engineering design award, and in 1991 we won the competition. At least the big universities from around the country began to know that we were more than that little “Podunk College from the east coast”.

Of course we got better. I got better as I gained experience. The students got better as they began to understand what was expected of them. The element of the advisement process that wasn’t developing as fast as I thought it should was my interaction with the group in helping them solve problems. It took me quite a while to realize that the “collective experiences” of this type of group (with similar interests) is enormous. All of the group interaction and problem solving did not have to be based solely upon my questioning technique; and it took more than a little maturity on my part to recognize that the resulting discovery or conclusion might not at all be what I originally had in mind.

It was early in the design decision process, in preparation for our first entry into the NASA sponsored intercollegiate competition known as the Great American Moon Buggy Race, that we were embroiled in a brainstorming session trying to decide how many wheels this human powered “lunar rover” should have. The rules stated that it must have more than two wheels. Therefore, the discussion evolved around three, four, or six wheels. I was trying my Socratic best to direct the discussion towards four wheels since I had considerable experience with SAE’s All Terrain Vehicle Design Competition. As the discussion continued, from the back of the room came “Why does the lunar rover have to have any wheels?” As I looked around the now quiet room I could almost see the “Wheels Turning” in the minds of the rest of the group. Whether they were trying to get a handle on the credibility of the question, or searching for ways to use the question to give their views greater weight was overshadowed by the fact that everyone in the room was thinking differently about the “number of wheels” issue. Although the group did eventually settle on four wheels, I essentially had little effect on that decision. It was at this point that I began to realize that this type of outcome is precisely what made the project their own - not mine.

With all of the varying experiences of the members of these groups, I realized that, as an adviser, I was simply adding my experiences to the group’s collective experiences. Of course I was older with more experiences than most of the team members, so my status as the team’s “adviser” was never challenged (besides I had the keys and could gain access to all the labs, even evenings and weekends). As the adviser though, the directed discovery technique put me in the position of a contributing team member. Teamwork then is what made those projects work.

By the time students got to the Senior Design Project, we as faculty already had three years in which to help students develop the “teamwork skills” that would enable them to take over leadership roles, and develop the decision making, trust building, communication and conflict management skills that groups needed to gain ownership of a project. It was this ownership that led the team members to recognize their personal responsibility – “this is my part of our project”. As the process progressed, team members began to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each member, and very quickly recognized which members needed help. Since each member of the group was individually responsible for his or her part of the project, and each part had to be done within an established time frame, the whole group moved in to help those in need. In no case could a part of a project be left undone. The whole group had to know the status of each member’s part.

We decided early on that it was absolutely essential that the team have formal weekly meetings where each member presented the status of their part of the project. This was the time to raise questions about a strategy, a process, a material, or an individual decision. Of course, I would still raise questions using my best effort at the Socratic tradition, and with good teamwork skills, the students seemed to naturally fall into the same questioning technique. Obviously, some students were better at this than others, but I always felt that I could rephrase or temper a question or comment to bring everyone back onto some semblance of a directed discovery page from my personal advisement handbook. After forty years of these projects, I have never lost my admiration for Socrates and his effect on the Directed Discovery technique; I just wonder how he would have handled twenty four students at the other end of his log.

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Senior Project Management in Engineering Education

The Solar/Electric Boat Project — Dr. Norm Asper, December 2006

It was following our first (1999) entry into the ASME Solar Splash competition, that a senior Mechanical Engineering/Management student approached me with a request to join the 2000 team, serving as both a mechanical designer and a manager. I could appreciate her desire to have her resume reflect both mechanical design experience and engineering management experience. The 1999 team had consisted of two, truly exceptional, mechanical engineering senior project students. They designed and built the “99” boat while working full time during the second semester (they had to take vacation time to go to the competition). These two students not only designed and fabricated that boat, powering it with parts from a previous solar electric car, but also acquired funding for the project which also included a custom launching dolly as well as travel expenses to Milwaukee, WI. This means that they not only accomplished all of the engineering design work for the project (both mechanical and electrical), but they also managed the project to the point that it ended “on time and within budget”.

Largely due to the success of this first team, interest in (and consequently the size of) the 2000 team increased considerably. As the advisor of many previous projects leading to intercollegiate competitions, I had spent much of my time seeking outside funding and keeping on top of scheduling deadlines. Therefore the prospect of having a “full time” management person on the team was very attractive. As I began to think about this prospect, my first thoughts were that if she could concentrate her efforts in scheduling and funding, it would put the 2000 boat way ahead of many of my previous projects. At the same time I began to realize that just as the engineering design students bring their course work to bear on a fluids problem, or a power problem, or a force analysis problem, the engineering management students needed to bring their course work to bear on the management problems of the boat project. But what were the management problems that one might encounter on this project? Many management decisions are made based upon past experience. If the students had to rely on experience, by the time they recognized a problem, might it be too late to correct it? Would it be possible, at the beginning of the project, to lay out the most likely problems combining my experience with their course work?

As I discussed this dilemma with my engineering management colleagues, I began to develop a picture of what a manager of a solar boat team might look like. The steps of the following outline focus specifically on managing a Solar/Electric Boat, Senior Design Project team preparing an entry into the ASME Solar Splash intercollegiate competition. The outline concentrates directly on the requirements of the senior engineering design project as well as the requirements of the competition, but I’m sure that it could be modified to fit any collegiate group project. Let me know what you think.

Engineering Management:
Solar/Electric Boat Project
— Dr. Norm Asper, May 2007

Defining Project Scope and Specifications:

Team Organization:

Project Closure:

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Senior Engineering Design Project Manufacturing

Fabrication & Threaded Fasteners—Dr. Norm Asper, March 2007

Over the past thirty years, The College of New Jersey has developed and prepared many vehicles for competitive events. We like to think that any success that we have realized over this period is because of good engineering and preparation. If the truth were known however, in many cases, we were just lucky. We approach each competitive event with three goals in mind. First is to win the event. Failing that goal, the second goal is to finish every event that we enter. The third goal is to bring the vehicle, and driver, back in one piece. I think that achieving the first goal is often, in large part, a product of "racer's luck". The second and third goals however are almost always achievable, and almost always a product of "good engineering and preparation".

As we start each testing period, we expect things to break. Each breakage can usually be attributed to some person, event, or decision along the development process. At this point it is also important to ask ourselves if some of those parts, that did not break, were not over-built. It is simply a fact that well engineered parts will break, and well engineered parts will fall off. It is also a fact that it is usually not the engineering of these parts that causes these failures; it is the machining, welding, joinery, or final assembly of these parts that are at fault. Some may suggest that it is the purpose of this testing period to find the parts that will fail. I have found that using this approach causes damage to too many unrelated (and expensive) parts; and worse yet, someone could get hurt. It is always better to engineer, manufacture, and assemble the parts correctly in the first place.

It was during the mechanical safety/technical inspection process for the 2000 Solar Splash event that I noticed several of these final assembly decisions seemed destined to fail. I have noticed these same circumstances in almost every intercollegiate competition with which I have been associated. Faulty assembly decisions were just as evident in SAE’s “Mini-Baja” competition of the eighties and early nineties, NESEA’s “Tour de Sol”, NASA’s “Great American Moon Buggy Race”, IHPVA’s “International Human Powered Vehicle Championship”, and most recently in ASME’s “Solar Splash”.

Almost all of these faulty assembly features involved the use of threaded fastening devices, and almost all of the applications were part of the steering systems, suspension systems, or drive systems. It was obvious that failure in any of these systems could (and did) cause catastrophic failure. It seemed as though after good engineering and design, all of the critical thinking went out the window at assembly. For example: the only function of the threaded fastener is to fasten parts together. The threaded fastener was never intended to be used as an indexing or locating pin. An automotive transmission's bell housing is located to the engine block by steel pins or dowels. It is held in place by bolts or studs. The bolts do not provide the indexing; they simply hold parts together.

Bolts are also often used as trunions for bearings (often connecting spherical rod ends) which should be only used in double shear. In double shear, the bolt is used to clamp the bearing or rod end rigidly between the two supporting members (mounting flanges). The connection assumes that the loads (usually tension and compression) created by the moving member will be transferred as bending or shear stresses on the bolt. They change finally back to tension and compressive loads through the mounting flanges, to the supporting structure. This connection also assumes a close fit between the bolt and all of the holes, and that the holes in the mounting flanges are properly aligned. It also assumes that the spacing between the mounting flanges is appropriately filled so that the flanges are not put into bending stress simply by tightening the bolt. Failure to address any one of these assumptions will result in flange failure or the loosening of the bolt. This will create unreasonably high stresses on the remaining flange or the bolt, resulting in premature fatigue failure.

If the bolt then is to be used to fasten parts together, how tight is tight? If the bolt is tightened (stressed) to its' design limit, it will resist the maximum number of fatigue cycles. If insufficiently tightened (under stressed), it will loosen and fail, by either breakage or by simply falling off. On the other hand, if the bolt is overly tightened (overstressed beyond its yield strength), the number of fatigue cycles that it can endure is severely reduced and the part will fail prematurely. The "torque specs" for various bolts are therefore "pre-load” specifications that allow the assembler to tighten the bolt, high in its elastic region, without exceeding its yield strength.

Also during the technical inspection process, I found inappropriate application of the other half of the threaded fastener picture “the locking nut”. Unlike the bolt, the tensile strength of the nut (in most cases) is of minor importance. “Locking nuts” can generally be classed into two basic categories: 1) the nylon locking collar nut, and 2) the all-metal elastic locking nut.

The first design achieves its locking power from a nylon insert, mounted at the top of the nut. This nylon insert is slightly smaller than the outside diameter of the threads, therefore the bolt (or stud) passes freely into the bottom of the nut until it reaches the nylon insert. To pass through the top of the nut, the threads must compress (not cut) the nylon insert. It is this compression that forces the upper face of the bolt threads against the lower face of the nut threads. It is the resulting friction between these two faces, and the compression of the nylon, that creates the locking characteristics of this nut. Depending on the quality of the nut (or bolt) selected, these nuts can be reused several times, and will withstand temperatures to around 250°F.

The second locking nut design, (the all-metal elastic) gets its name from the fact that the upper section of threads is slightly distorted. They are sometimes called elliptical nuts (although the distortion is almost never elliptical). The "elastic" designation is derived from the fact that the distorted area of the nut still retains its elastic behavior, and provides compression forces similar to those described for the nylon insert above. This design is available in two configurations: 1) the "offset elastic stop nut", and 2) the "segmented elastic stop nut". The only difference between the two is the slots cut into the top of the segmented nut. Once again depending on the quality selected, these can be used several times, and will withstand temperatures to around 1400°F.

Both the nylon insert locking nut and the all-metal elastic locking nut derive their locking capabilities from the threads extending through their nylon or distorted sections. It is paramount therefore that threads protrude through the nut to show that they are indeed "locked”. Therefore, association standards generally specify at least two (2) threads extend beyond the locking nut.

There are a number of circumstances where bolts must be threaded into blind holes, a condition where the use of a nut is impossible. The purpose of this threaded fastening device must still be to hold parts together without loosening. It is this circumstance where the designer/fabricator must turn to safety wire. Wire is inserted through holes in the bolt head and wrapped around the nut in the tightening direction before being twisted. It is this wrapping practice that prevents the bolt from loosening. No more than three bolts may be safety wired together, and only when the threaded receiver is captive (or one piece). The lock wire must fill a minimum of 75% of the drilled hole. The wire must be aircraft quality stainless steel with its diameter determined by the bolt size. For bolt sizes of ¼ inch or less, use 0.020" diameter wire, for bolts ¼ to ½ inch, use 0.032" diameter wire, and for bolts larger than ½ inch diameter, use 0.042" diameter wire. Generally speaking, larger wire may be used with smaller bolts simply for convenience, but the smaller wire sizes should never be used on the larger bolts.

You may notice that I haven't mentioned "lock washers" as a safety device. I don't mention them here because I'm absolutely convinced they don't work as a locking device. The split washer, when installed, must be completely compressed for the assembly to be tight. In this condition, the only force holding the assembly tight is the elasticity of the bolt. The washer offers nothing until the assembly starts to loosen, and we all know the ramifications of a loose bolt in any application. The "star" washer (either internal or external) offers better holding power than the split washer, but it is almost impossible to torque an assembly to specifications with star washers present. My suggestion – don't use them.

As I re-read the above material, I realize that my bias towards engineering materials is only thinly veiled. It is however probably the reason why the first things I see in technical inspections are the use of wrong materials or components, or right materials or components used incorrectly. Attention to these final stages of vehicle development (along with some good engineering design), will almost certainly guarantee the achievement of "finishing every event that you enter" and "bringing back the vehicle (and driver) in one piece". It is only after achieving these two goals can you (with a little racer's luck) achieve the final goal of winning the event.

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Creative/Aesthetic Design in Engineering

Dr. Norm Asper, November 2006

What is it that you want Doc? Do you want the project to work, or do you want it to look good? I think that every educator involved in teaching engineering design has heard that question. My one and only answer has to be YES!  Why would anyone intentionally design something to be ugly? If the project turned out to be ugly, was it a mistake, or was it just carelessness? Would either circumstance yield a successfully completed design?

When we in the Department of Engineering at The College of New Jersey began to get involved in intercollegiate competitions, I decided that we could not afford to show up with anything less than a first class entry. We did not have the luxury of a long standing reputation like many of those prestigious university engineering programs that everyone has heard about. No one laughed at the SAE Mini Baja entry, offered by one of those prestigious eastern universities, which included a block of wood screwed to a gate hinge serving as an accelerator pedal. A small program like ours would never have been taken seriously had we had shown up with the same quality entry. Did anyone but me consider the gate hinge accelerator pedal ugly? It worked (kind of); but was it an elegant solution to the problem? Did it have what Webster refers to as a “richness and grace of design”? If the solution had been elegant, would it also have been considered beautiful? Is there such a thing as a beautiful accelerator pedal?

I found little help in defining beauty using the internet, since most of the contributors had a singular focus on feminine beauty. Oddly enough, I found that Webster once again offered the most useable definition of beauty for the designer.

BEAUTY: The quality attributed to whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind, as by line, color, form, texture, proportion, rhythmic motion, tone, etc. (I’m going to return to these “senses” later, as they represent components of both the elements and principles of design.)
Before going any further with this definition of beauty, I thought it might be useful to look at “ugly” as the antonym for beauty. What does Webster have to say about this adjective?

UGLY: Offensive to the sight; contrary to beauty; being of disagreeable or loathsome aspect; unsightly; repulsive; deformed. (Perhaps an accelerator pedal made from a gate hinge and a block of wood [my editorializing].)

If the design process entails creating things that did not exist before, or things that were not created by nature, are the adjectives “ugly” and “beautiful” even useful when describing an engineering design? The terms are after all emotions, which is most likely why they have escaped being applied to engineering design. There are many among us who subscribe to the term “aesthetics” as it applies to design and engineering design. By definition, aesthetics refers to a study of the theory of beauty and the psychological responses to it. Therefore, the term “aesthetics” binds us not only to the definition of beauty, but also to the emotion that it stimulates.

As a musician, I was brought up to recognize that beautiful music was equivalent to harmony, and its opposite was unresolved dissonance. I learned that harmony was based upon a combination of parts into a pleasing and orderly whole (complimentary frequencies). Harmony was an agreement or proportional arrangement of the elements (again complimentary frequencies). When referring to design, could not the “proportional arrangement of the elements” cited above also refer to those “elements” of design that Webster hinted at in the definition of beauty?

It is generally accepted, by both the artist and the designer, that the “elements” of Line, Space, Shape and Form, Texture, and Color are the same for both art and design. The difference between the artist’s use of these elements and the designer’s use of these elements is intent. A creation offered by an artist need not satisfy anyone but the artist himself. If there is “intent” to the design of his creation, it is self satisfaction. The artist is the one who decides when his work is done. It doesn’t even have to be viewed by anyone else. On the other hand, a creation offered by a designer must satisfy a problem to be solved in the human condition, supplying human needs. The design must have a meaningful goal; the intent of the design must be its function in relation to the solution of a problem in the human condition. The designer’s approach to the solution of a human problem, and his use of the “elements” of design, is the same whether they are applied to engineering design, industrial design, clothing design, automotive design, furniture design, architectural design, or any of the myriad of applications of the design process. These elements of design must be applied to the solution’s intent or the “function” of the design solution.

Unfortunately, the term “function” historically led to the hue-and-cry from the late eighteen hundreds that “form follows function”. This was followed, in the early nineteen hundreds, by Frank Lloyd Wright’s contention that “form and function are one”. In short, they were saying that if it functions well, it will be pleasing to the eye (or beautiful). This notion led to the sterile cookie-cutter Bauhaus furniture designs of the twenties and thirties, and the equally sterile cookie-cutter housing developments of the forties and fifties. The “intent” of these designs was not based upon the function of the human condition, but on the function of the mass production process. The high density tract homes of this period were designed so that principles of mass production could be applied to their construction. In my view, we in engineering education must not let the process become the final goal; MAN must be the final goal! When we make design decisions, what we know about man must be primary, what we know about processes must be secondary.

It seems to me then that in order to teach design, we must focus on the human condition as a fundamental goal of our design decision making. Accepting that, I can also accept Webster’s contention that the human reaction to beauty includes “whatever pleases or satisfies the senses or mind”. At this point, it is no stretch to extend the source of Webster’s elements of emotional stimulus to include the elements of design - Line, Space, Shape and Form, Texture, and Color proposed by Marjorie Bevlin. By themselves however, these elements are of little use. They must be combined using the principles of design. If I were a baker, I would first select the appropriate elements (ingredients) for my pastry. I would then need to specify appropriate methods of combining these ingredients. The baker recognizes this step as developing his recipe. In teaching design, I find it useful, early in the process, to equate the elements of design as the ingredients of our design pastry, and the principles of design as our recipe.

After listing several of the elements of design in his definition of beauty, Webster also listed “proportion, rhythmic motion, tone, etc.” If we accept the above premise, we recognize that these are not design elements, but design principles. Once again, the artist and the designer agree that Webster’s “proportion, rhythmic motion, tone, etc.” represent segments of the “principles of design”; the recipe with which the designer combines various amounts of design ingredients to achieve successful design “pastry”. Bevlin also offers a listing of the principles of design which includes: Unity and Variety, Balance, Rhythm, Emphasis, Proportion, and Scale. I have found that by defining design this way, both the elements and the principles of design can be easily codified, and the teaching and learning strategies that are developed can be applied at the very first stages of learning engineering design.

What remains now then is to attempt to define the human condition? During my doctoral studies at The Ohio State University in the 1960s, we spent a great deal of time attempting to classify and define the elements of all of man’s knowledge. Based upon Aristotle’s contention that all of man’s knowledge could be classified into three disciplines, the modern philosophers (Tykociner, Kotarbinski, Hannah, Maccia, et. el.) generally agreed that all of man’s knowledge could be extended into four “Theories”. These theories were classified into “Form Theory” (form & arrangement – mathematics & logic), “Event Theory” (physical sciences biological sciences social sciences chemistry, botany ….), “Value Theory” (explaining phenomena or events in terms of what is good and/or right and/or ethical and/or beautiful [fine arts & humanities]) and finally “Practice Theory” (or technique theory – [my interpretation]) (clinical or professional subject matter [engineering, law, journalism, medicine, education]).

In my attempt to internalize this definition in a way that could help me understand the “human condition”, I began to realize that it was not simply the four elements or  theories that made up the human condition; it was the interaction between the four elements or theories that makes understanding the human condition possible. If we are to teach design from a vantage point that recognizes man (or the human condition) as the primary goal, then it seems to me that we must also recognize that all four of these elements must be a part of the design process. In some settings, the interaction between Event Theory and Value Theory for example, may simply be a cow path. In others this connection may be a super highway. However, leaving any element out of the process, or short changing any needed element, will invalidate the design and destine it to failure.

Let’s say that I am a musician (which I am), and a violinist (which I am not). I have studied Form Theory and understand musical form and arrangement, and meter. I have studied Event Theory and understand the physics of string vibration and the effects of the sound chamber and bridge. I have also studied Value Theory and understand the phraseology of beautiful music. Would you buy a ticket to my concert? Of course not! I have never practiced the instrument. What about the automotive designer who lacks a commitment to Value Theory and an understanding of the ethics involved in his design decision making process? Perhaps the designer is one of those who consider the manufacturing process primary, and man as secondary. Would you buy an automobile from this designer’s company?

A similar fault will occur if we over concentrate on one element, like the engineers who wanted to design the slenderest (for its length), most beautiful suspension bridge in history (you know the one). Concentrating on Value Theory, they obviously never got around to recognizing the contribution of Event Theory, and the destructive force of harmonics and the supporting cables. In engineering we often run the risk of getting so lost in Form Theory that we find ourselves involved in a game of engineering trivial pursuit. As a result we may never get around to recognizing the contribution of Value Theory.

Do I want the project to work?  YES, obviously.  Do I want the project to look good?  YES, just as obviously. In my view, the only way to achieve both of these ends is to recognize that MAN, and the human condition, is the end. When we teach design then, our learning activities must include both the elements and the principles of design, and we should expect a project to portray a design intent that recognizes all of the human condition, including Value Theory.

At The College of New Jersey, the School of Engineering offers a liberal studies course entitled TST 161 Creative Design which does exactly this. The class learning activities uses both the elements and the principles of design to make sure that students recognize the application of Value Theory (what is good and/or right and/or ethical and/or beautiful) to the solution of a human problem. The course is taught by the School of Engineering faculty, and offered to the entire campus in partial fulfillment of the “Perspectives on the World: Fine and Performing Arts” liberal studies requirements. The course is required of all engineering majors, and as a one hundred level course, it is obviously offered at the freshman level.  It is a perfect partner to the other freshman design course, ENG 142 Introduction to Engineering Design. Together they portray a design process that recognizes that “Man is the end → The Process is the means → and Society is the result”.

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Cognitive Issues in Teaching Design 

                           Dr. Norm Asper, August 2007

If, as Einstein suggests, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, then it seems to me that those of us teaching engineering design should be spending much of our time teaching students how to “visualize”, or create a mental image of, a problem. Once engineering students are taught to visualize a problem, they can imagine themselves as part of that visualization process. As they manipulate the elements, the variables, and the constraints, they begin to see how each of these elements fit together. The beginning engineering student (or even the experienced engineer) will also begin to visualize the simplicity or complexity of the problem. From that visualization, they can (as Einstein suggests) imagine novel approaches to the solution of the problem, and recognize which of these approaches could be most successful. This could also be considered the beginning of the optimization process.

The visualization process requires that the engineering designer consider all of the variables, including all of those “human condition elements” that will have an affect on the final design. This is obviously more than the traditional “engineering analysis” and more than the traditional “applied science and math”. Since the engineering designer must offer a creation that solves a problem in supplying human needs, then the design variables that need to be considered must be drawn from all of these human condition elements. I found it a tremendous help in identifying (if not defining) these human design elements when ABET came out with a list of eight “Realistic Constraints”, of which six were directly definable as “human conditions”.

            Cost/Benefit analysis of engineering investment
            Selecting between alternative designs

            Taking away from, or adding to the environment (pollution or destruction)
            Biological support of humanity

            Maintenance and replacement of resources
            Recognizing future generation needs and population growth

            Product design beyond the prototype
            Optimize a design based upon production capabilities

            Maximize benefit, avoid producing harm
            Respect for others as “ends in themselves”
            Protect the interests of the vulnerable

Health and Safety:
            Unplanned energy release
            Exposure to energized sources
            Effect on people and the environment

Social Impact:
            Recognizing the engineer’s role in society
            Making intelligent judgments that encompass human and social values

Political Impact:
           The extent to which economic, environmental, sustainability, ethical, health & safety, and social engineering decisions affect the political structure          

Once we have established the “human condition elements” upon which we could base a creative design solution, we are faced with the dilemma of how to teach this process. Very few of the above elements can be thought of as absolute “truths”, and therefore it is almost impossible to teach the process using the application of Aristotle’s “Deductive Reasoning”. The deductive method relies on a few truths (axioms) from which one could logically deduce further truths (theorems). On the other hand, in analyzing the human condition, the engineering designer can only come up with observations, not truths. This means that the engineering designer must rely on the “Inductive Reasoning” process. Francis Bacon’s inductive reasoning method starts with these observations (or possibly measurements) from which one could infer principles, or laws, or theories.

I have long been convinced that the teaching/learning strategy of Inductive Reasoning is by far the superior method of portraying the design process, starting in the freshman year and continuing through the senior design project. I first learned the teaching strategy as the “directed discovery technique” (you may have learned it as the “problem based learning technique”, or by any number of other “handles” applied to this Socratic process over the years). Regardless of what it’s called, the technique provides students with the opportunity to model (visualize, imagine), through inductive reasoning, a solution using the problem variables or observations. The relationships between these seemingly unique variables emerge as students begin to imagine the interaction between them. They not only recognize the interaction between these variables but they also recognize cause-and-effect relationships. They also seem to naturally assign relative value to these elements. “Which of these elements will have the most impact on my final problem solution?” “Which of these elements will be in the forefront of my solution, and which in the background?”

Obviously, students come to college with differing cognitive and perceptual characteristics. Some will excel at the inductive reasoning process just discussed. Others will excel in Aristotle’s deductive reasoning process mentioned earlier. When we look at the typical engineering curriculum, we find that the freshman course load is heavily dedicated to math and the sciences. These courses are taught in the typical collegiate fashion of lecturing sequentially on the fundamentals, followed by problem set examples, hoping that there is time left at the end of the semester for some sort of application. This setting is heavily weighted to the deductive reasoners, those students who will ask “Is this going to be on the test”? They don’t want to be bothered or distracted by peripheral observations, they just want the information that they will need to get the “right answer” on the test.

On the other hand, the inductive reasoners (those who would excel at integrative thinking) feel uncomfortable in this teaching and learning setting, and begin to wonder if this is what engineering is all about. As a result these inductive reasoners, these integrative thinkers, this reasonably large number of students who could make a significant contribution to the engineering profession, begin to transfer into other, more satisfying, curriculum areas. The result is junior and senior engineering class groups that are heavily weighted with deductive reasoners. By the time these students reach the senior design project stage of their academic career, they join senior design teams that are made up of a large number of students (like themselves) who are confident in solving highly structured problems, but struggle when confronted by the nebulous elements of an open ended design problem. As I see it, this homogeneous grouping is a product of a curriculum designed to reward the deductive reasoner who is proficient with coming up the “right answer” while not offering appropriate and rewarding curricular settings for the inductive reasoner.

The latter is not so easily accomplished. One reason is that traditionally, many engineering faculty are comfortable lecturing on the fundamentals sequentially as presented in the text book. Textbooks are written sequentially, and often the course outline is drawn heavily from the table of contents of the textbook. Each chapter even has problem sets for which publishers will offer the “right answers”. While the deductive reasoner will feel comfortable in this setting, the inductive reasoner will become bored with the repetition and wonder where all this information is taking them. We must therefore find ways of stimulating the inductive reasoner, and exciting the intuitive thinker.

While it is generally accepted that each of us possesses varying capabilities of functioning in both cognitive settings, it is also generally accepted that we have definite preferences for one or the other learning and problem solving styles. It is further generally accepted that these preferred cognitive learning styles are not learned attributes, but they can however each be enhanced with practice. As I see it then, as teaching faculty, we must formulate teaching/learning settings which will stimulate both of the deductive and inductive cognitive styles. We may very well then be best served by following the scientific method when structuring our classroom presentations. In this setting we would introduce each presentation with an observation, drawing heavily on the elements of the human condition discussed earlier. Each presentation would begin with an observable problem that could be solved with the application of the appropriate theory – INDUCTION → DEDUCTION. Homework problems would then follow the same sequential process. This presentation format plays into the strengths of both cognitive learning styles while providing the opportunity for each preferred learning style to become more comfortable with the other. The proportion between inductive and deductive reasoning would vary depending upon the particular class content, but certainly the design classes would rely heavily on inductive reasoning; and at least in the design setting, perhaps Einstein was “right on” when he suggested that “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

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