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Learning engineering design over the Internet

STANFORD -- Wearing a hardhat to class on the day your project is to be critiqued may be an amusing joke -- but four engineers in a graduate engineering design course added a twist. They donned the protective gear and, via live television hookup, joined their class more than 3,000 miles away.

The East Coast engineers were able to take the course -- Mechatronics Engineering Design, ME 210 -- because it is among the first in the country to experiment with the latest Internet technologies for engineering instruction. As a result, the four engineers, who work at Hewlett-Packard's Medical Products Group in Andover, Mass., attended class via videoconference, corresponded with instructors and fellow students by e-mail, and kept track of class assignments and what their classmates were doing by accessing text, graphics, sound and video clips posted on the World Wide Web.

More than 20 years ago, Stanford pioneered the provision of continuing education courses for professional engineers by establishing the Stanford Instructional Television Network, which broadcasts classes over television for those in the area, and supplies more distant students with videotapes of courses. Now, fundamental changes are taking place in the world of telecommunications, changes that are making it possible for students to participate more fully in engineering courses, regardless of their geographical location.

This year, the ME 210 instructor, Professor Larry Leifer, decided to test how well the new Internet-based technologies work for teaching engineering design. He opened up the course to several remote groups -- Hewlett-Packard engineers in Andover and Corvallis, Ore., and a Carnegie Mellon University group in Pittsburgh -- that had the interest and equipment necessary to participate in this fashion. In the fall quarter, 18 students out of a total of 60 participated remotely in the master's-level course. The number of remote students dropped to 10 for the winter and spring, as the focus shifted from an overview of product development methodology to in-depth, team-based projects.

"Why are we messing with distant participation? Because companies are telling us, and granting agencies are telling us, that there is a need to find ways to develop and support multidisciplinary, geographically distributed engineering teams," Leifer said.

Although there were some technical problems, Leifer said that "broadly, we're encouraged. One of the lessons we have learned is that interested and motivated individuals can learn in this fashion. We have also learned a good deal about the technical resources required to participate. We'll offer this capability next year without stressing the experimental nature of what we're doing. This year was an 'alpha' test. Next year will be a solid 'beta' test. After that, it should become a routine, although evolving and expanding program."

Engineering design presents a particularly severe test for distant learning. One reason for this is embodied in the first of Leifer's provisional laws of design: "Engineering design is a social process." Not only is communication between the instructors and students important, but communication among students and between students and corporate representatives is essential. "Communication drives design. Poor communication limits product development performance," Leifer said.

In ME 210, Leifer's first goal is to develop the students' team design skills, so all the exercises are done in teams. This approach is based on a "project-based learning" model that is gaining increased international attention. The most important class exercise, a seven-month corporately sponsored project, requires students to form and manage their own teams. Normally, Leifer prefers three-member teams. But this year the bidding process yielded teams ranging in size from two to seven. One-third of the teams had at least one remote member. In one case, the HP Medical Products Group, the entire team and project was remote. In another case, all three students were Stanford Instructional Television Network students who worked at three different companies in the Bay Area.

In the fall quarter, all the teams had the same assignments, such as designing paper bicycles. In winter quarter, however, they began branching out, each taking a different, industry-sponsored project. The projects varied from a vibration-free overhead projector for 3M, to a mass-transit bicycle for BMW, to an active bumper system for Ford, to a miniature satellite for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The HP Andover team's project was to develop a special tester for one of the company's medical products, an ultrasound heart imager that is inserted down the esophagus. Currently, hospitals use an expensive and complicated machine to determine that the hermetic seal on the imager, called the TEE probe, is not broken. If a crack goes undetected, it potentially could spread contamination from one patient to another, cause electrical shocks and degrade the probe. So the group designed, built and tested a special purpose tester that performed the same basic continuity test as the more expensive machine, but would do so at a push of a button and for a fraction of the cost.

One example of how the Andover engineers were able to participate in the course was a series of debates that Leifer scheduled early in spring quarter, midway through the design process. The basic idea was to reproduce the kind of go/no-go discussion and decision that a project is likely to face in a business setting before major fabrication costs are incurred. Several students were selected as judges, and half the class was assigned the role of arguing that the project should go forward while the other half was given the job of arguing that it should go back to the drawing board.

Although they could have given a live presentation via videoconference, the Andover students chose to run a 20-minute prepared slide presentation on their design. Then they donned their hardhats -- at a previous debate the "con" group was pummeled with pingpong balls -- and listened intently while their classmates first praised and then criticized their design decisions. According to the rules, they couldn't comment. After extended discussion, the student judges gave the team's project a unanimous thumbs-up.

During the debate, a number of students relied heavily on documents that the Andover group had posted on the World Wide Web, Internet software that allows the exchange of graphics, animation and video as well as text. The Web served as the glue that held the course together, supplemented by special software called Personal Engineering Notebook with Sharing, or PENS, developed by Jack Hong and George Toye at the Stanford Center for Design Research. PENS allowed students to create notes, link them in the hypertext environment and automatically convert them to the format required for the Web, so they could be posted without extra effort. According to Leifer, PENS and electronic mail proved particularly effective in the team- building process, possibly because they provided an effective mode of communication that supplemented face-to-face interactions.

Although all remote students had access to Internet e-mail and the Web, there were major differences in the technological links between the remote students at different sites and the rest of the class. As the year wore on, it became clear that the stronger the link, the more the students got from the class, Leifer said.

Of the three remote locations, the engineers in Corvallis had the poorest link. Although they could use e-mail and the Web, they had to rely on second- day videos of the class, so they didn't have an opportunity for direct interaction. The group was heavily PC/Windows based, while ME 210 relies heavily on Macintosh technology. So the Corvallis engineers had a number of fundamental problems, such as exchanging text and graphics files.

Corvallis participant Mike Morrow said, "I think this was a decent course overall. I took it not because of the specific course content, but because of the alleged 'Internet interaction' that was promised. I was very excited at the possibility of exploiting the electronic resources available to establish a new type of classroom. Unfortunately, I found the outcome to be disappointing. The class itself was valuable, and the material was conveyed appropriately, but the Internet side of it was lacking."

The response at Andover, which had full-screen teleconferencing, was quite different. "I think that the value of a good education, why we choose one university over another, comes from the interaction with that university environment," said participant Alec Rooney. "In other words, I can get the raw information from a book, a videotape, etc., but it's the ability to talk to the author that differentiates learning from a class. So now, finally, with ME 210 we do have a live hook-up, and the difference is remarkable. Finally, we have made the jump from watching to participating, and the associated leap in educational value. I think that the ability to take the class live has kept us interested, involved and feeling like we are really benefiting from taking a class at Stanford."

Carnegie Mellon's connection was intermediate between those of Corvallis and Andover. Teleconferencing capability was limited to small, quarter-screen images and two-way audio. Participants also could type messages on the computer screen that were read in class. "Basically, you're talking about maintaining concentration on a lecture under less than ideal conditions," CMU's Bill Chan said. "Visual input is via a 3-by-5-inch window transmitting at anywhere from 1 to 10 frames per second. Audio is usually good, but can at times be unintelligible or lost completely."

Dedicated video conferencing such as Andover employed is too expensive for all but large, well- funded corporations, Chan said. Even if the quality is still substandard, using the Internet as the underlying infrastructure holds out hope of providing these capabilities to educational institutions and many businesses at a reasonable cost, he said.

This experience has led Leifer to conclude that remote participants who are not familiar with the computer environment of the course will have trouble.

From an instructor's point of view, remote students add more work than campus students, mainly because of the extra effort required to communicate with them, Leifer acknowledged. He had to add a teaching assistant to deal with the extra workload. On the other hand, remote students do not require additional physical resources, like seats and workspace. Remote students' participation allowed Leifer to engage four additional industry sponsors rather than one, as might have been the case otherwise. "We came out well ahead in the cost/benefit tradeoff," he said.

Some subjects were harder than others to convey to remote students, Leifer has learned. Esthetics was one of the toughest. "We are teaching engineers to be creative and to achieve high standards of visual communication. In the first design exercise, the paper bicycle, the contents of the remote students' projects were fine but the visual quality of their presentations was notably below average as a group. Their performance was clearly affected by their lack of informal contact with other students. This corrected itself during the year, but, on the whole, the remote teams lagged in the development of these skills."

One of the big surprises for Leifer was the effect that remote collaboration had on the class itself. "The energy in the classroom goes up. Of course, part of that may just be the novelty. But it seems to invigorate the classroom experience and to have a good effect on the campus-based students," Leifer said.

Another major advantage of working with the Internet tools is the extensive documentation that results. In addition to reports and illustrations, all the electronic mail exchanged between team members provides a ready basis for documenting the design process. This is particularly important because of another of Leifer's laws: "All design is redesign."

"The half-life of a design rationale is a matter of hours," Leifer said. "So recording all this information helps with redesign. Design teams are creating new knowledge, a new aggregate of facts and points of view. The more you can capture and understand, the more you can reuse. It's always a matter of redesign versus recreation."

Telecommunications tools are evolving rapidly. As a result, Liefer and his colleagues expect the technological obstacles to remote instruction to be removed; they are currently working on versions of the PENS software that will allow it to handle graphics and video. Next year they will be experimenting with three-dimensional sound, in hopes that it will allow students to identify remote participants more easily.



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