Deprecated: Function set_magic_quotes_runtime() is deprecated in /home/optimaldesign/ on line 18

Strict Standards: Declaration of Walker_Comment::start_lvl() should be compatible with Walker::start_lvl(&$output) in /home/optimaldesign/ on line 0

Strict Standards: Declaration of Walker_Comment::end_lvl() should be compatible with Walker::end_lvl(&$output) in /home/optimaldesign/ on line 0

Strict Standards: Declaration of Walker_Comment::start_el() should be compatible with Walker::start_el(&$output) in /home/optimaldesign/ on line 0

Strict Standards: Declaration of Walker_Comment::end_el() should be compatible with Walker::end_el(&$output) in /home/optimaldesign/ on line 0

Warning: session_start(): Cannot send session cookie - headers already sent by (output started at /home/optimaldesign/ in /home/optimaldesign/ on line 425

Warning: session_start(): Cannot send session cache limiter - headers already sent (output started at /home/optimaldesign/ in /home/optimaldesign/ on line 425
Design Impact » Education

Shifting Directions

As many of you may know, this summer I moved from Boston to Urbana Illinois to accept a faculty position at UIUC. I am teaching engineering design and leading a research group focused on engineering system design and sustainable energy systems. My writing efforts are shifting from articles like you might find on Design Impact to academic articles. Posts on Design Impact have been irregular during this transition. Posts may continue to be infrequent, but I will highlight research developments made by my group at UIUC in the areas of engineering design and sustainable energy, and I plan to continue having guest bloggers write relevant topics. If you are interested in seeing what I am up to these days you can check out the website for my research group - the Engineering System Design Lab at UIUC. I have a list of my current publications there.

Posted: November 15th, 2011 | Filed under: Design, Education | No Comments »

Engineering Week 2010

This week is National Engineering Week, and today is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. There are events across the U.S. throughout this week focused on both encouraging students to consider engineering as a profession, and to help everyone deepen their understanding of what the profession of engineering is about. In Boston we had a two-day long program with design competitions, career guidance, and a career fair. What are some e-week events happening near you?

While I’m certainly an advocate of encouraging more students to consider engineering as a profession, I’m especially interested in e-week as an opportunity for the public to learn what engineering is about: what engineering has done in the past to help humanity, and the potential it has to address some of society’s most pressing present challenges. In fact, emphasis on the role of engineering in society could stimulate more interest in engineering as an attractive career choice. Senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), the only engineer in the Senate, explained recently that one of the road blocks in encouraging more students to pursue science and engineering careers is that they “don’t view engineering and science as the way to make a difference”, but then points out several critical issues that depend on a strong engineering workforce, including energy and economic recovery.

A clear theme throughout Design Impact articles is the positive impact engineers have on humanity. What do you see as the most important issues today that call for engineering solutions? How can we communicate best to students that a career in engineering is an opportunity to make an important difference?

Posted: February 18th, 2010 | Filed under: Education, Energy, Policy | 1 Comment »

Engineering Education for the Rest of Us

An article in last month’s PRISM, a magazine published by the American Society for Engineering Education, discusses the value of a first-year engineering course that exposes freshman engineering students to what engineering is all about. Many engineering programs pack their first year with challenging prerequisite courses, such as calculus, physics, and chemistry, but sometimes neglect helping students get the big picture early on. It’s easy for a student to get lost in the labyrinth of technical topics, and lose sight of what engineering is all about.

The author of the PRISM article, Prof. Henry Petroski of Duke University, advocates including ‘engineering appreciation’ courses in the engineering curriculum, and focuses on the value these courses have to engineering students. Petroski likens engineering appreciation courses to other introductory courses offered in other disciplines that have no prerequisites, such as art or art history appreciation.

I was fortunate enough to experience two different introductory engineering classes at two separate universities. Each of these courses involved an engaging design project and competition that helped students experience the engineering design process covered in class. In the first course the project was to build a trebuchet (a weight-powered catapult) for launching golf balls. In the second class we built a device that could ride down a model roller coaster, and safely rescue an egg positioned below the roller coaster. In each class I learned something about what engineers actually do in a fun and engaging way; I began to develop my own vision for what I wanted my engineering career to be.

I believe that developing a personal vision for what engineering is (as a profession and how it impacts the world) is essential for all engineering students. This vision can help carry students through the demands of their engineering program, and help them derive more relevance from the individual topics they study. Engineering appreciation courses are certainly a valuable in this regard. I would like to take this idea to the next level. Let’s not limit these courses to engineers or prospective engineers. The art appreciation courses in Petroski’s comparison are not limited to art majors. Engineering, science, and business students all benefit from taking classes like art appreciation, which help them develop a more well-rounded understanding of the world. Why not develop an engineering appreciation class open to all students, targeted specifically for non-engineers? Obviously an engineering appreciation class benefits future engineers, but what about an even broader impact? What would it mean to our society if many college graduates had a solid understanding and appreciation for what engineering is? It could do wonders for the public perception of engineers, and perhaps even contribute to restoring U.S. economic competitiveness by inducing deeper appreciation for and stronger cultural value for technical skills and innovation.

My vision for an engineering appreciation class is one with no prerequisites that college students from all majors could take to fill a science general education requirement; students could take this instead of physics or chemistry. It could be centered around interesting applications students can relate to, things like the engineering behind sports, amusement parks, video games, music, etc., and show how basic math and science topics are relevant to engineering analysis and design. If you were a non-engineering college student, would you consider taking an engineering appreciation class in place of physics? What ideas do you have that could make an engineering appreciation course appealing to a broad range of students?

Posted: January 18th, 2010 | Filed under: Design, Education, Vision | 1 Comment »

Design for Energy Efficiency at ASME DETC 2010

A central theme of Design Impact is how design engineers can improve quality of life and sustainability simultaneously through better design. Design engineers make decisions about how things work and how they are made, and these decisions have profound impact on our society. One of the most significant areas engineering design has an an impact on is energy use. In addition to reducing consumption, we need to develop and put into service products and systems that use energy more efficiently. By using advanced design techniques, such as design optimization, incorporating more efficient technology, or simplifying systems and processes, engineers can help propel us toward energy sustainability. It’s important to recognize that efficiency alone won’t solve our energy challenges. Without incentive to consume less, energy consumption may not go down. Motorists, for example, tend to drive more miles as fuel efficiency rises. We need policy changes that stimulate energy conservation, which in turn will drive demand for energy efficient products and improved engineering design.

To provide a forum to discuss recent advances in energy efficiency research, I’m organizing a new session (DAC-9) at 2010 ASME iDETC, an engineering design conference organized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The conference will be held August 15-18, 2010 in Montreal. The topic of the session I’m organizing is Design for Energy Efficiency, and I’m hoping to get the word out early about this session to stimulate interest in the topic and encourage strong participation. If you are working on any projects that involve improving energy efficiency through design, please consider sharing what you have learned by contributing to this session. Draft papers are due by January 29th, 2010. If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the session or conference, please feel free to contact me, or post your ideas to the comments section below. Here is a description of the session from the conference website:

Design for Energy Efficiency: DAC-9

The ASME Design Automation Committee invites papers focused on design theory, innovation, or methods that enhance energy efficiency of energy consuming products or systems. Analytical design techniques that reduce energy consumption while maintaining or improving performance are of particular interest. Sample topics of interest include but are not limited to the following:

  • Using optimization to improve energy efficiency
  • Reducing energy consumption through process analysis and redesign
  • Energy recovery and reuse
  • Advanced/intelligent/alternative transportation systems
  • Novel control techniques that reduce energy consumption
  • Efficient energy storage
  • Challenges in transitioning to more efficient technologies
  • Economics of energy efficient technology
  • Energy savings through system simplification

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Filed under: Design, Education, Energy, Optimization, Sustainability | No Comments »

Chapter 18: The Great Disruption, and the Case for Design Optimization

Thomas Friedman, the author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, has invited readers to contribute ideas for a final chapter for the second version of the book. He wants to hear our thoughts on how we might ‘grow people’s living standards in a more sustainable and regenerative way’. (If you haven’t yet read HFC, I highly recommend it.) Here is my response to Friedman’s invitation:

In Hot, Flat, and Crowded you discuss the importance of ’smarter’ design; by changing how things are built, how they work, and are retired, we can reduce energy consumption and environmental impact dramatically, as well as improve quality of life and national security. I believe better design is at the core of a green revolution, and we need increased efforts to help others solidify mental links between design improvements and a vision for a sustainable future. In addition to helping citizens deepen their appreciation for the role of design, we must address this issue on two other fronts: public policy and engineering expertise. We need the right policy and incentives to set the stage for a transition to sustainability, as well as the technical expertise to implement the transition rapidly. I would like to address the latter issue.

To realize a green revolution, we can’t settle for products that are ‘good enough’, or green technology that evolves slowly. Instead, we must seek to develop the very best, most efficient designs, and do so quickly. Instead of taking small steps each year with slightly more efficient cars, slightly better wind turbines, let’s make giant leaps! We need the backing of citizens, the support of policy makers, and boldness from engineers and engineering educators to advance our ability to create sustainable systems and products. Researchers have developed impressive new engineering design methods the last few decades that can help us create products and systems that use less energy and other resources, while making leaps forward in performance. Some of these methods are mature and proven, but unfortunately are not yet used widely by engineers. First, let’s have a look at the conventional design process.

Suppose we were designing a car to be very energy efficient, but still performs well at a reasonable cost. Using a conventional design process, engineers would generate design ideas, test these candidate designs, propose new designs, and iterate until they converge on a design that meets (or comes close to) design targets. In the past, engineers relied heavily on expensive physical prototypes for testing. More firms now use computer models that predict how something will perform without having to build it. While this saves time and money, design refinements often are still made by engineers based on test results, experience, and expertise. Managing all these often conflicting design decisions is often overwhelming, particularly as products evolve and become more complicated; engineers stop when they find a design that meets basic requirements, instead of pursuing the best possible, or optimal, design.

One prominent method developed by researchers is design optimization. Other readers have also described optimization as an important solution; I hope to strengthen this position and clarify the link between optimization and engineering design. When using design optimization, engineers work to minimize or maximize some important aspect of a product, in addition to seeking to meet design requirements. In the car example, we might seek to maximize fuel economy, while meeting acceleration, handling, comfort, cost, safety, and other constraints. Framing a design problem in this way allows engineers to use computer models and powerful optimization algorithms together to help generate the best possible design. In this process design candidates to be tested are chosen analytically using mathematical techniques, reducing the number of tests and time to market. It can help engineers learn what is really achievable, opening our eyes to new possibilities. Design optimization also accelerates design evolution by enabling engineers to make more substantial design changes between product generations, instead of just small perturbations of the last version (as is usually the case now).

The design optimization approach is actually a pretty natural fit for how engineers already go about designing things; using formal design optimization is an enhancement that produces better results in less time, and leverages investments many firms have already made in computer modeling. It’s not a push-button solution; it automates some aspects of design, but requires engineering expertise and experience to implement successfully. (In the parlance of The World is Flat, design optimization is a high-level, ‘icing’ activity). Awareness is perhaps the biggest hindrance to the adoption of design optimization. It needs to be taught in undergraduate (not just graduate) engineering courses, as well as in industry training programs.

In summary, design engineers make a lot of important decisions that have tremendous impact on our world. Moving beyond status quo design processes can help engineers deliver sustainable products and systems while improving living standards; these changes in engineering design are essential to a successful green revolution. Right now there is a lot of low-hanging fruit; there are many opportunities to improve our world through better design. Design optimization can help us put new technology into production faster, as well as refine systems that use existing technology. This can help us bring energy efficient designs into production more quickly, and accelerate the transition to renewable energy systems. We have the technical tools, but we need the societal impetus to put them to broad use.

James T. Allison, Ph.D.

Posted: September 24th, 2009 | Filed under: Design, Education, Energy, Optimization, Sustainability | 1 Comment »

Proposed Program to Combine Engineering, Humanities, and Arts

Earlier I wrote about the need for educational programs that link technical subjects with other topics so that graduates are better equipped to solve complex problems. We do a pretty good job at training engineers in technical subjects, and are working to improve soft skills as well, but we still have a ways to go toward graduating ‘renaissance’ engineers who are skilled at linking technical aspects with societal, environmental, or other facets of challenging problems.

A proposed program at the University of Windsor would help address this issue. This new program would ‘combine engineering with the humanities and arts.’ This program would culminate in a bachelors degree, whereas many other interdisciplinary engineering programs are restricted to the graduate level. Waguih ElMaraghy, department head of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering, explains that engineers now must solve ‘not only technical problems, but social technical problems.’ Students of this program would have opportunity to study at the interface between disciplines, and work toward becoming ‘renaissance’ engineers.

Posted: September 10th, 2009 | Filed under: Education | No Comments »

Preparing Future Innovators

The National Science Board is asking how we can prepare students to become future innovators in advance of policy recommendations it will deliver to the National Science Foundation next year. How can we actually teach innovation? Our technical and economic leadership depends on our ability to innovate. Traditional lecture-based instruction may flounder in this endeavor. Generation of new ideas requires us to think outside well-structured problem definitions and solutions; we need to make creative connections between existing ideas and look at problems in new ways.

Perhaps learning centered around open-ended projects would help. Project-based learning is becoming more prevalent at the college level (have a look at Olin College’s project-based curriculum, for example), but what about teaching innovation earlier in life? Ideally students would already have a foundation of curiosity and creativity by the time they get to college.

I urge that over-scheduled childhoods impede development of creative talents. In an earlier article, I suggested that children need plenty of opportunities for independent hands-on exploration. It takes lot of (unstructured) time to experiment and learn for yourself how things work, whether natural or built, and engaging in this process can amplify both curiosity and the flow of ideas.

We need folks who are not only creative and passionate about innovation, but also have the knowledge and tools to develop their ideas into actionable solutions. Innovation may be one of the hardest skills to teach, but we shouldn’t stop there. More traditional pedagogical approaches can complement innovation education by providing students with quantitative and practical skills that can help them put their ideas into practice.

I can speak from my own experience and what I’ve learned from teaching others about design (an activity that requires substantial creativity and innovation), but this is admittedly a very narrow set of insights. What has your experience been? What suggestions would you give to the NSB or NSF for enhancing innovation?

Posted: September 2nd, 2009 | Filed under: Education | No Comments »

New Page on Design Impact: Topics

You might have noticed a new page that I added last week to Design Impact. The Topics page provides a convenient summary of posts relating to core topics. You might be wondering how this is different from the categories in the sidebar, and why this page was added.

Suppose you encounter a post that touches on a broader topic, such as engineering modeling, and you want to learn some more about it. Clicking on the modeling category could yield plenty of useful information, but going to the modeling section of the Topics page will provide you with more focused content. Each section of the topics page presents blog posts (and possibly other resources) in an order that’s useful for learning a topic. You can use these sections as a tutorial. In some cases I will also list titles of upcoming articles so you can see what is coming down the pipeline.

What do you think? Do you have suggestions to enhance the usefulness of the Topics page?

Posted: August 9th, 2009 | Filed under: Education | No Comments »

Request From Congress

A few weeks ago Congress sent a letter to the presidents of the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Science, and the Institute of Medicine, seeking advice on steps our nation should take to strengthen our research universities. You can download a pdf of the letter here. The letter describes how long-term research has contributed to our “social and economic well-being”, and has made possible the high American standard of living. The authors express concern that our research universities are at risk, and pose this question:

What are the top ten actions that Congress, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?

If you were to respond to this letter, what would you say to Congress? What actions do you think we should take? What are your thoughts on what is at stake?

Posted: July 15th, 2009 | Filed under: Education, Policy | No Comments »

Engineering Systems Education

In a somewhat recent post I wrote about the need for renaissance engineers, that is, engineers who can move beyond their narrow disciplinary lens of engineering when looking at a problem. Engineering problems need more than just purely technical solutions. Virtually any project touches humanity in some way, and this element cannot be ignored if success is to be achieved.

So what are we doing to develop holistic problem-solving capabilities? Last month I attended the IESS Conference at MIT, sponsored by CESUN, the Council of Engineering Systems Universities. I had the opportunity to meet with professors and researchers from around the world and learn some about what they were doing to address this challenge. There are dozens of interdisciplinary programs in place right now that are training students to solve problems using knowledge from a variety of disciplines, and it was inspiring to see this level of activity in interdisciplinary engineering research and education.

At IESS Chuck Vest discussed how engineering research has focused in recent years on narrow or small-scale topics, such as nanoscale engineering, but that macro-scale topics are getting increased attention now. Some of the most important challenges society faces, he explained, are large-scale problems that span many disciplines, such as health care, energy, environmental, manufacturing, communication, and logistics problems. Vest pointed out that employers are now seeking engineers who are trained in more than one area. We need people who understand not only engineering, but engineering and economics, health care, public policy, or psychology (for example). In particular, we need people who understand the interface between these disciplines. Spectacular challenges, opportunities, and surprises lie within these interfaces.

Growth in the number and maturity of interdisciplinary engineering education programs, such as those affiliated with CESUN, is essential to gaining a deeper understanding of these interfaces and solving the macro-scale problems that society faces now. As an example of one of these programs, the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) at MIT offers several graduate degrees in engineering systems, which MIT defines as:

  1. A class of systems characterized by a high degree of technical complexity, social intricacy, and elaborate processes, aimed at fulfilling important functions in society. Such systems include electrical grids, transportation, manufacturing supply chains, and health care delivery.
  2. An emerging field of scholarship that seeks solutions to important, multi-faceted socio-technical problems.

ESD focuses on four domains: energy and sustainability, extended enterprises, health care and delivery, and critical infrastructures. There are numerous other approaches to interdisciplinary engineering research and education. Other examples include the University of Michigan’s Design Science program, which offers an interdisciplinary Ph.D. degree that requires students to choose coursework and research topics that span engineering and at least one other discipline (such as marketing, psychology, or public policy). Yet another strategy is to specialize in the interface between engineering and one specific second discipline, as is done at the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

There seemed to be nearly as many pedagogical approaches to (and definitions of) engineering systems at IESS as there were institutions represented. This is a fantastically complex, emerging area of study, so this variety is not unexpected. In any case, it was clear that we had a lot to learn from each other, and there is a lot of exciting and important work to be done. I hope this broader approach to engineering, and the greater focus on the link between engineering and society, will inspire more people to study engineering and engineering systems, and perhaps attract other professionals from disciplines other than engineering to get engaged in collaborative work to solve engineering systems problems.

Posted: July 9th, 2009 | Filed under: Education | 2 Comments »