According to Dictionary.com, engineering is defined in part as:
“to arrange, manage, or carry through by skillful or artful contrivance”.
John Devitry is a former member of the Australian rock band Turncoats, and the inventor of the Stump Preacher compact electric guitar. He’s also the CAD administrator for the Space Dynamics Lab of Utah State University, who as adjunct faculty teaches the Engineering Graphics course. In this course, John takes the “artful contrivance” definition of engineering to an entirely new level. When John heard that Tod Hayes of the art department was teaching a 3D Design art class for freshmen students, it sparked an idea. It is common to try to get engineering students to be more creative, and its also common to try to get art students to think more analytically. So why not share a project? Why not have the art students develop some 3D forms that the engineering students then model in 3D CAD, and then build all the models on the 3D printer.
Tod said that getting the students to work together supplying artistic and analytical skills was just a starting point. “The ultimate goal would be to see some cross pollenization” where the students are learning from one another rather than just dividing the work.
The assignment put to the students was a three phase project. In Tod’s 3D Design art class for freshmen, the assignment was to draw an aquatic form that could be printed on a 3D printer. In John’s class, the engineers had to then create a CAD model from the art. The final phase was to print the parts on a 3D printer.
More than one student admitted to feeling like they lacked some of the necessary skills if they had been asked to do the entire project on their own. “Engineers think more functionally.” Kristen McFly, an art student, said. “We didn’t really know how it needed to be in order to not break.” The admission that each skill set needed people with the other skill set came from both sides. Sam Palmer was Kristen’s engineer partner. “I could never have come up with the ideas that Kristen came up with.”
None of the three art students I spoke with had any prior experience in 3D. Shae did have a brief encounter with SolidWorks in a summer internship, but quickly determined that wasn’t the kind of work for her, and proclaimed “I never want to do this again.” It was mainly the process that she felt didn’t lend itself to working as an artist. “Too many restrictions.”
Looking at some of the drawings submitted by the art students, there was a range of beautiful, artistic forms represented on paper where the 3D came in various forms, such as appropriate shading, multiple views, or an isometric view. But in the end all but one of the designs were symmetrical, and symmetrical objects are easier to represent in 2D, and in 3D. I singled out the one student whose drawing made the most use of asymmetrical 3D, with a twisting spiral, and the tail of the fish kicked out to one side, it didn’t allow for any symmetry shortcuts. Shae Bennett’s drawing to my eye was the “most” 3D, and certainly the most difficult to execute in CAD.
Shae claimed that she primarily created drawings, but that this 3D project intrigued her, and she wanted to take advantage of the 3D printer. She also thought that working with engineers meant that she was going to have to do something mechanical, something with straight lines. Shae’s typical style is dainty shapes that twirl around. To help communicate the 3D shape of her idea, she created drawings from 3 different views. I pointed out that the 3 view method was a very engineering sort of thing to do. So already Tod’s class is a success, he has an artist making use of engineering techniques.
From the art phase in Tod’s 3D Design class, the project moved to the CAD model phase in John’s class. One of the things that I thought was pretty interesting about this whole project was that on the engineering side, John was taking pure beginners, and throwing them into the deep end of Solid Edge, a tool that might have itself been over its head in these organic shapes. Experienced users would have some difficulty modeling some of these shapes, I’m quite sure.
Landon Myers pointed out that “organic forms are easier on paper than on the computer.” He thought that having an integrated tablet would make the work somewhat easier. Sam Palmer chipped in that he thought being able to grab onto faces and pulling on them directly would have been useful. The students had a basic course in Solid Edge that taught them about lofts and sweeps with guide curves. The skills they learned in that course were put to the test and I’m sure augmented with what they learned in this project.
The engineers both admitted that there was some difficulty interpreting the 2D ideas from the artists into 3D geometry in the computer. To some extent, the artists shading skills helped, but the collaboration went beyond just the images handed to the engineers. Kelsy Hulihan said that many of the engineers and artists traded phone numbers and texted back and forth. The engineer might email a screen capture, and receive a text back with more suggestions. In another case, Landon said that he and his artist partner sat in front of the computer together to get a live critique of the 3D interpretation.
One sentiment was universal between the teams and the disciplines. Each felt that there were skills that the other brought to the table that made their projects better. Sam said that “As an engineer, I’ll be working with a lot of different people, and things will have to look good.” Landon agreed, saying “This project made me realize the importance of team work. I need to give credit to other people. Kelsy had ideas that I didn’t think of.”
The question of creativity in engineering is one that I’m familiar with. I know a lot of engineers who have some sort of artistic avocation, such as music, or literature. Engineers by nature are problem solvers, which you cannot do well unless you are inventive and imaginative. I myself was a professional musician before I went to engineering school. Reference also Mr. Devitry’s pre-engineering musical involvement. Even the young students in this class hint at the idea that practically minded engineers may not have the same visual talents as the art students, but do consider themselves artistic to some degree.
If you look at creativity in engineering as a problem to be solved, there are (among others) two ways to solve the problem: You can make it easier for engineers to work with other creative professionals who can provide the skills needed, or you can increase the creativity of individual engineers. I think both approaches are appropriate and will be useful.
John Devitry has this to say about trying to find and release the creativity in engineering students:
Over the years I’ve had many students who were great at memorizing and parroting back information but lacked creative problem solving skills. It’s been a continual challenge finding ways to get students to really think for themselves and develop their own vision. I discovered that by stepping out from the rigid framework of precision goal oriented engineering, and instead using artistic themes to enhance creativity, students were more apt to experiment and learn for themselves. Positive things began to happen when I gave students the freedom to build something that was not tangent, parallel, uniform and could not easily be manufactured. No longer the villain, art has reignited a passion, beauty and excitement previously lacking in the classroom.
Tod Hayes had some equally interesting ideas about learning interdisciplinary collaboration early in your career:
It seems that we get so caught up in our own worlds in academia, that we forget how it really works in the real world… and that is progressively becoming more and more multi-disciplinary. We have artists relying on structural engineers to help them figure out the physical logistics of their ideas and scientists and engineers who are more and more looking at creative approaches to solving every day problems.For me, that was the crux of the assignment… exposing students ,early in their careers, how to collaborate and work with people outside their own fields and understand that you have to make certain sacrifices and give up some control in order to make successful projects. I think they gained a greater understanding and appreciation for different ways to problem solve.
In the end, I think these students are lucky to have professors who understand the value of skills that are not traditionally taught as part of a given curriculum. A truly great artist is going to understand how to solve problems not directly artistic in nature, and a great engineer will be able to recognize worthy ideas from other disciplines. Both engineers and artists will benefit from both the ability to collaborate, and any of the cross-disciplinary skills that they may have learned as a part of this exercise.