Making Connections: supporting skill development and interdisciplinary attitudes

“I didn’t realize how ‘impossible’ ideas could actually be made to work. […] I realize now that thinking out of the box and being creative is the way to go.”

Creative thinking, comfort with failure, and embracing the impossible — these are just some of the sentiments that Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation strives to instill in its students. Opened in 2015, the Jacobs Institute is UC Berkeley’s interdisciplinary hub for learning and making at the intersection of design and technology. A primary aim of the institute — which offers courses, extracurricular programs, and access to makerspaces and resources — is to infuse design innovation into undergraduate education. Simultaneously developing interdisciplinary design courses and supporting design-focused curriculum in a range of departments, the institute provides opportunities for students to work on projects that intertwine domain expertise, hands-on skills, and design methodology.

As the institute moves into its fourth year, Berkeley researchers have begun a formal study to understand how maker-based courses offered through the Jacobs Institute impact students’ identity, skills, and attitudes. Björn Hartmann, Faculty Director of Jacobs Institute, and Leah Rosenbaum, a PhD student at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) are working with students to learn about their experiences and growth during these courses.

Over the coming semesters and years, the research team plans to survey hundreds of students enrolled in Prototyping and Fabrication, an entry-level course developed by the Jacobs Institute and open to students from all majors; Critical Making, a project-based, upper-division course that links computer science and socially engaged art; and other courses in both introductory and upper-division sequences. By working with students across a range of experience levels, the researchers seek to characterize the impact of Jacobs Institute courses on both students new to making and those with an established technical background.

In the meantime, they’re sharing promising results of a pilot study conducted with the Prototyping and Fabrication and Critical Making classes during Summer and Fall 2017. While these results are just a starting point, they suggest several key areas in which maker-based courses may contribute to students’ growth and development.

In this pilot phase, the researchers worked with students at both the beginning and end of term. Open to students of all majors, both the Prototyping and Fabrication and Critical Making classes introduce students to foundational design, prototyping, and fabrication skills through weekly hands-on projects that include laser-cutting, 3D modeling, and electronic circuitry techniques. Approximately one half of respondents declared as engineering or computer science majors and another one quarter with a design major, with the remaining quarter composed of students from multi-disciplinary, arts and humanities, business, and social science fields. Of survey respondents, 76% were female, and the courses enrolled sophomores, juniors, seniors, and graduate students.

The survey used in this study included questions from pre-existing, validated survey instruments as well as custom-designed items. For example, questions about student identity were borrowed from the PRiSE (Persistence Research in Science & Engineering) study. Researchers also designed a section about attitudes on interdisciplinary learning specifically to assess this core tenet of the Jacobs Institute. Broadly, the survey includes areas on students’ career interests, identity, engineering self-efficacy, interdisciplinary attitudes, and work and learning style. Initial results in the areas of identity, engineering and design self-efficacy, and interdisciplinary attitudes are highlighted below.

Identity:

“I love how I can incorporate STEM and art in design, aka STEAM. This honestly changes so much about my future and opens up so many opportunities.”

One area in which students reported change was in markers of identity — how much they affiliated as a maker, a scientist, a designer, an engineer, or other designations. The areas with statistically significant change were identity as a maker (+0.63 out of 5), identity as an artistic person (+0.48 out of 5), and identity as a creative person (+0.44 out of 5). Identity as a designer, a science person, and an engineer also showed increased on average, though they were not statistically significant.

Table 1. Identity*

*additional categories omitted for brevity

In addition to these numerical rankings, respondents also briefly described the courses’ impact in words. Among these written responses, common themes emerged of increased identity as a maker and designer, opening up new areas of identity, and connecting previously separate personal interests with career goals. Many respondents indicated an interest in keeping design as part of their future careers, especially integrating into other fields such as computer science and business.

Engineering and Design Self-Efficacy:

“My experiences have made me more confident in my abilities in the design cycle.”

On average, respondents reported increased confidence on all engineering and design skills (Table 2). Respondents reported statistically significant increases in confidence in developing design solutions (p-value 0.0002), constructing a prototype (p-value 0.018), and identifying a design need (p-value 0.023). On the skills of redesigning, researching a design need, and choosing between multiple solutions, respondents reported increases that trended toward significance (p-values of 0.058, 0.069 and 0.076, respectively).

Table 2. Engineering and Design Self-Efficacy

Respondents were also asked to reflect on the impact of design-based course on their confidence in these skill areas, sharing their thoughts in free-response format. A few themes emerged. Respondents tended to emphasize the value of practical experiences in these courses, saying “the variety of assignments helped” and that “doing projects directly impacts all of the [skills] above.” Student responses also highlighted the value of a challenge, saying that the class “provided me with critical thinking opportunities” and “pushed me out of my comfort zone with product redesign and sketching assignments.” Finally, respondents noted the critical role of knowledgeable, approachable faculty and staff in fostering their growth, explaining that “the staff … helped us make OUR ideas come true.” Participants’ written reflections suggest that these areas of practice, challenge, and support were central their skill development.

Interdisciplinary Perspectives

“Working with people from different backgrounds is one of the most amazing aspects of this course, and I hope to continue doing that in the future.”

Finally, responses indicate growth in students’ perceptions of interdisciplinary learning, a central focus of the Jacobs Institute’s position as a cross-campus hub serving students from diverse fields.

For over half of respondents (57%), this was their first project-based course with students from another academic discipline. Encouragingly, respondents reported marked gains along all dimensions of interdisciplinary attitudes, tending to increase agreement with statements supporting interdisciplinary learning and decrease agreement with statements against it. For example, respondents on average reported a statistically significant increase in agreement with the statement, “Learning with students from other academic disciplines is critical to becoming effective in my discipline” (+0.52 out of 5, p-value 0.020). Respondents on average decreased agreement with statements opposing interdisciplinary learning, such as, “I have to acquire much more knowledge and skills than students in other academic disciplines” (-0.18 out of 5), though these decreases were not statistically significant.

In explaining the course’s impact on their attitudes about these statements, respondents emphasized being able to experience, rather than just hear about, the benefits of interdisciplinary learning. Students also mentioned learning from each other saying, “I feel like I can learn a lot just working with my partner.” Respondents also emphasized the new perspectives brought by their peers, mentioning that students from other majors “offered a lot of industry specific insight that I wouldn’t have learned about otherwise.” Some students also expressed interest in continuing interdisciplinary work in the future. These reflections suggest that students’ experiences with group-based making helped them appreciate the value of interdisciplinary work.

Respondents did note a few difficulties of interdisciplinary learning, primarily differences in expectations and communication style. One student wrote, “there was a communication gap that made work somewhat awkward,” and another mentioned challenges within a group that “often lacked necessary skills as a whole.” Acknowledging these challenges of communication and incomplete skill sets is also important to successful interdisciplinary work.

Summary

While the results summarized here represent a the first efforts of this study, they suggest that the Jacobs Institute’s maker-based courses are already impacting students’ identities, engineering skills, and attitudes about interdisciplinary learning. The researchers look forward to the results of the larger-scale study, which will help build better understanding of students’ learning experiences within Jacobs Hall.