Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Heart"-shape house? "Seastar"-shape house?

In just a few hours, two students were capable of designing ten houses using our Energy3D software, about which they had no prior experience at all. Among them there is one with a floor plan of the shape of a heart and another the shape of a sea star.

We were excited about the ease of use of Energy3D for designing complex houses. However, there are a few concerns. First, these two houses have complicated shapes that take a long time to scale up on cardstock and assemble from the cutout pieces. With a powerful CAD tool like this, students' creativity can be unleashed--they are capable of coming up with sophisticated designs. But computer models are not the final destinations. They are thinking and visualization tools that help students conceptualize their designs. Our goal in engineering projects is to have them make real systems after computer models. If a computer model is too complex, students may not be able to make the real system within a given amount of time in the classroom. On the other hand, if a computer model is inflexible and few variations are feasible, students will quickly be bored. It may be a bad idea to limit the design capacity to simple models with only a handful of features and options. So where is the balance point?

Another thing we should watch out is that students who are too focused on designing the fancy shapes like these may pay less attention to the science and engineering principles we hope to teach in this engineering design challenge--we want them to think about designs that can achieve maximum livability and be energy-efficient. What kind of intelligence can we build into our CAD tool to provide just-in-time instructions that guide their designs?

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