|Mark Angelov '98 listens as Carolin Varughese explains|
the three concepts she has developed for possible toys.
She has selected her idea that has an ant, Charlie, looking
for other ants to build a colony.
The goal was to find a vehicle that would introduce
engineering design to
all first-year engineering students, motivating and educating students
who have little or no technical background, diverse abilities and diverse
interests. The answer was as easy as child's play: toy design.
The toy design course is the brainchild of Anthony Renshaw, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Mark Angelov '98, a graduate student in mechanical engineering. Mark helped redesign the required computer course based on his own experiences at the School. He had taken it as a first year student when the Botwinick Gateway lab first opened in 1994 and the course consisted initially of making web pages, doing three-dimensional graphics, and using computer programs such as Mathematica.
"When I was a teaching assistant during my senior year, students complained that the course was just disjointed mathematical ideas that they would never use," said Mark, "so I tried to think of a way to teach the design process more painlessly. I picked toy design because toys are fun and everybody who comes here has had 17 or 18 years of experience with toys."
Dr. Renshaw's contacts with designers in the toy industry led to a working relationship with a local New Jersey company. They have provided examples of designs, some that have been successful and others that have failed to be marketable. At the end of each semester, the principals of the company critique the students' work, giving them feedback about their projects.
"This course lets our students create 'gee-whiz' things instead of 'ho-hum' things," said Dr. Renshaw. "It makes them evaluate their ideas, refine a design and then try to sell it to real toy makers."
No matter what a student eventually majors in, design uses the same technique, the same method of thinking through a problem and developing critical thinking skills that can be transferred from one discipline to another. "This course is like 'one size fits all' because it can apply no matter what the student's major might be: electrical, mechanical, civil, IEOR," said Mark. "It is no longer just a mathematics exercise but a more fun way of learning the basic formula for the process of design, a skill that all engineers need," he said.
Several sets of skills are developed in this class, according to Dr. Renshaw. The first is computer based--a quick review of how to surf the 'Net, e-mail, and create a home page before being plunged into using Alias, a large computer design program, to learn the elements of design. (Alias is the computer program that made the realistic tyrannosaurs, sauropods and velociraptors that stomped through Jurassic Park. The Botwinick Gateway Lab now also has Maya, the latest and most powerful version of the software.)
The other skills learned are less concrete but no less important: how to think about problems, analyze the needs, wants and features to make a product attractive, how to choose the best idea, how to design the final product, how to package the product, and how to sell it to a manufacturer. Evaluation and communication skills come into play through each step of the process of toy development.
Teaching a sophisticated computer program such as Alias to a class that has a wide range of computer experience levels is challenging, but manageable, because of the subject matter. "I thought I was fairly good on computers until I saw these," said Sam Williams from Austin, Texas, about the Silicon Graphics O2 machines in the Botwinick Gateway Laboratory. "Alias is a cool program." Sam now feels comfortable enough to illustrate for the class how to extrude handles on a vase using the Alias program.
"I was not exposed to Silicon Graphics machines or the program Alias before," said Carolin Varughese from Bergen County, New Jersey, "but I'm getting the hang of it and I'm looking forward to what comes next."
What comes next is the midterm project, creating a toy that uses the basic elements of the popular Japanese toy, the Tamagotchi pet, which was introduced into the United States in late 1997. The Tamagotchi consists of three buttons, a low-resolution LCD and a programmable microchip. It is a cyber-pet that needs to be fed, cleaned and nurtured to grow. If the pet is neglected, it flies back to its home planet. Students focus on creating a similar electronic toy with an appealing storyboard.
"Design is easier for some students than others, it is creative work and depends on the strengths of the students," said Mark. "To help the process, we ask for multiple preliminary concepts and urge the student to keep an open mind, explore possibilities and not take a single track." Design is done on-line and there is peer review and evaluation in several categories. Suggestions from fellow students are usually seen as objective and so the student designers listen to their peers, make modifications and end up with a better product.
"With design, there are no right answers, but there are definitely better and worse answers," said Dr. Renshaw. "In the simplest context, it is learning how to make choices with certain goals in mind. Even if a student feels he will never actually design anything during his career, it is important that he has an understanding of the process. There is a need to know the fundamentals of what the work is like so that you can be a better manager or leader of your company. Exposure to the process will be invaluable for every student, no matter what his major," he said.
Just as students learn to modify their designs to meet their goals, the framers of the toy design course have modified their curriculum. This semester, the final project will be a more sophisticated toy that uses sensors and feedback for interaction with the user. It is similar in concept to the bass fishing toys on the market where the toy itself is moved in a casting motion to throw out the line and the reel is used to bring in the fish.
"The potential is there to develop a new, hot toy," said Dr. Renshaw, "The mechanism is in place, the students are talented, and the toy manufacturer is waiting for the ideas."