Engineering students learn to sketch and make paper models to generate and convey ideas before using digital tools to develop them creatively.
Like their colleagues across the College, staff in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have spent the summer figuring out how to turn hands-on courses into viable online modules. Although digital tools are central to the daily work of the modern engineer, the Sketching and Modeling course focuses on sketching as the first building block for generating ideas.
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 plugins such as Rhinoceros and Grasshopper numerically model the same structures. Once the drawing is in the computer program, it is easy to use it to play with the drawing, for example seeing what happens to the structure if the position or angle of a cut or a fold is changed.
Course tutor Dr Andrew Phillips explained, “Sketching is still 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 wondered about simple things as if the pupils would have paper to fold. We were concerned that digital education would not leave 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 still just as good at learning Grasshopper, if not at a higher level.
“Having to think through the challenges of online delivery has made the course better, however it will be delivered in the future. The tapes of the teaching sessions have been 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 to 6 and stay in these groups for the duration of the course. Tutors gave tips on how to organize online group sessions to get the most out of them, including making sure that all students have the opportunity to present their first sketches. Each group had a private channel within the teams, which allowed them to share and discuss ideas and designs. The students were encouraged to upload photos of their designs and the tutors walked in and gave their opinions on the designs.
Freshman Frame Hiransrisoontorn said: “The online sketching and modeling course was a new experience for us and the teachers. The group project was initially quite tricky as neither of us saw each other face to face, so it took a while before we could start working together effectively. However, by the end of the module, most groups produced an artifact that was comparable in quality to previous years. ”
The course took the students through several stages of learning. After generating several sketch ideas, the students constructed a paper model of the contextual design of their choice. Then they designed visual instructions on how to build their paper model which were tested when another group tried to build their design. The final step was to replicate their structure in Grasshopper, then produce multiple versions that could be put together to form a new artifact, which the course tutors could interact with.
Rami Al-Shukairi, a first year student, said: “Distance learning emphasized the importance of continuous communication with all members of the group. My group was following the deadlines set by others to monitor progress, this allowed us to adjust and reshape our work based on feedback from speakers. Grasping complex software like Rhino / Grasshopper was difficult at first, but the help provided by the speakers made the process easier.
To replace the usual final ‘pin-up review’ session, each group used a Google Jamboard to display their digital mockup alongside the accompanying design content. The tutors and other students were then able to ask questions and critique the design. Instead of a physical presentation of the models in the Skempton Building as in previous years, a virtual exhibition built by one of the tutors (thanks to Luke Lapira) allowed students to see and explore each other’s work.
Find out more
The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering offers a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses.
The MEng in Civil Engineering comprises a number of individual and group projects, including the sketching and modeling course.
The Sketching and Modeling course is a course in collaboration with industry, with Dr Fernando Madrazo-Aguirre (COWI) and Vladimir Marinov (define engineers) directing the analog and digital parts alongside Dr Andrew Phillips.