The Aesthetics of Design(ing an new course)

This semester I am teaching a new course, the Aesthetics of Design. It is a mashup of industrial design, studio art and engineering projects courses. Grad and undergrad students from our Mechanical Engineering program, plus students from TAM and other programs will design and build artifacts with an aesthetic component, possibly useless things for art’s sake. Not your typical functional time-and-money oriented engineering project course, and not a traditional ‘industrial design’ product-oriented course either.

This is the second offering; first was in Maymester 2014. I want to give a big shout-out to my co-creators/co-instructors Hunter Ewen
and Jiffer Harriman who got us all through that rocket-propelled experience. I wish they had been able to help me this semester too.

The goal of Aesthetics of Design is to change students’ perception of design in the world around them via a creative aesthetic experience. This semester represents an iteration in a design process I’ve been working on to bring the potent impact of Flow Vis to a new domain: design. Based on the research Kate Goodman and I have done, I can recognize that these students have had a ‘transformative experience’, including expanded perception (they notice fluids), motivated use (of what they learned in the course), and affective value ( they like fluids) [1]. I want this for all our students, in all our courses. Aesthetics of Design is designed to promote a transformative experience in design. Yes, it gets a bit meta. But like fluids, design is all around us, and any engineer will benefit from expanded perception, motivated use and affective value with respect to design.  However, there is no prescription for triggering a transformative experience; we are only starting to figure out what educational practices might create a fertile environment for them, such as the inclusion of (wait for it) aesthetics.

So, this semester as part of my iterative design process, I am taking heed of the evidence we gathered last Maymester. Straightforward stuff like student requests for more emphasis on aesthetics earlier, and less traditional design content. More time for reflection. Some subtle evidence that came out of the research we did was that this course helped students feel like real engineers by giving them ownership of a project. Most of our project curriculum is focused on teams, which is fine, but perhaps we have gone overboard. Here students will own their projects from start to finish, and their teammates will be their minions. Each student in turn will be a minion with two bosses.

Another difference is the way students will publish their work. Last time each student had their own blog; this time we are co-creating a blog together: Everyone is signed up as an author, and will be posting about their work each week, including the major design review reports. My job is to provide a professional venue for them to shine in, and shine they do! (Please check out their work so far in exploring an aesthetic, and please make comments. Like any social medium, it’s the feedback that makes it thrive.) What a wonderful selection of cultural niches they have found. Enjoy!

[1] Goodman, Katherine, Jean Hertzberg, and Noah Finkelstein. “Aesthetics and Expanding Perception in Fluid Physics.” In Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 2015. 32614 2015. IEEE, 1–5. Camino Real El Paso, El Paso, TX, USA: IEEE, 2015. doi:10.1109/FIE.2015.7344311.

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