Inside the studio: Teaching design innovation

Jacobs Institute
Jul 12, 2017 · 10 min read

“Starting in fall 2015,” read a spring 2015 Berkeley Engineer magazine feature on Jacobs Hall, the then-future home of the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, “future engineers, artists and game-changers from many fields will have an inspiring new environment for advancing visionary ideas into designs to help improve the world….Studios with access to the latest equipment for rapid prototyping and fabrication provide enough space to let ideas loose.”

Today, roughly 20 academic courses take place in these studios each semester. Reflecting the Jacobs Institute’s aim of infusing design innovation into the undergraduate experience, these offerings range from introductory seminars to capstone courses in a diverse mix of fields. New courses in Design Innovation (DES INV), developed directly by the institute, provide opportunities for students from all majors to gain hands-on design skills. At the same time, Jacobs Hall hosts and supports design-focused curriculum offered through a variety of departments, bringing courses from computer science’s User Interface Design to integrative biology’s Bioinspired Design under one roof.

With the two-year anniversary of Jacobs Hall’s opening approaching, we sat down with some of the faculty members who teach these wide-ranging courses. They offered a look at how they’re bringing design innovation into the classroom, fostering creativity and collaboration within Jacobs Hall’s studios.

“We want to get students in the makerspace in their first and second years…so they have these tools at their fingertips from there.” — Hayden Taylor

Hayden Taylor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, teaches two courses in Jacobs Hall: Introduction to Manufacturing and Tolerancing, an entry-level course geared toward freshmen and sophomores, and Processing of Materials in Manufacturing, an upper-division offering.

The syllabus for Introduction to Manufacturing and Tolerancing, Taylor explains, was largely designed around the possibilities that Jacobs Hall would open for building hands-on skills early on in students’ undergraduate experiences. “We want to get students in the makerspace in their first and second years…so they have these tools at their fingertips from there,” he says. With the opening of Jacobs Hall, he continues, it’s become much easier for students to gain familiarity with tools like 3D printers as part of a course — enabling them to try out ideas and fabricate their own designs as they explore core engineering concepts.

In teaching two courses at Jacobs Hall, Taylor has gained insights into structuring these kinds of hands-on experiences, from effectively facilitating teamwork to creating meaningful assignments. “The more open-ended we make a project, the more students have enjoyed it,” he notes. Partially in response to student feedback, he’s worked to integrate Jacobs Hall’s diverse equipment capabilities into course assignments. In Processing of Materials in Manufacturing, for example, students use tools like the Type A 3D printers, ShopBot CNC router, and Othermill CNC milling machine, ultimately bringing skills together to create original projects in which they prototype a product and scope out how it might be manufactured at scale. Going forward, Taylor hopes to continue to build on this work, and to collaborate with staff and other faculty at Jacobs Hall to share ideas and resources for hands-on learning.

“This is a complete eye-opener for many students.” — Jeff Bokor

Jeff Bokor, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, has long taught Gadgets Electrical Engineers Make, a seminar that invites students to look inside everyday gadgets like projectors and flat screens. The opening of Jacobs Hall, however, allowed him to boost the course’s scale — increasing the class size and expanding the seminar from freshmen-only to an offering for both freshmen and sophomores.

His goal, he explains, is to get lower-division students excited about hardware. He points to a slogan he’s used for the course: “Take this class to find out how much fun you can have working with your hands — other than typing with a keyboard.” Each class session centers on a particular type of gadget; a small group of students researches the week’s gadget and opens the class with presentations on its function, features, and history. From there, students get to break open sample gadgets, with Bokor walking around to provide additional context as they take a close-up look at the engineering behind an everyday object.

Jacobs Hall’s studios, equipped with movable tables, hanging outlets, and other flexible features, facilitate this format. “It’s a good space for this class,” Bokor says of the studio that houses his course, noting that he typically arranges the tables to form large surfaces on which teams can easily work together to study their gadgets. For many students, the course is their first hands-on engagement with hardware, and Bokor hopes it will prompt them to continue tinkering and experimenting, commenting, “This is a complete eye-opener for many students.”

“There’s an openness.…It’s nice to have the kind of space where students can really move around and put it to use.” — Sara Beckman

Sara Beckman, senior lecturer at the Haas School of Business and teaching professor in mechanical engineering, has been leading courses in design methodology and innovation for years. In the past two years, some of her work has taken place in a new setting: Jacobs Hall’s third-floor studio, the building’s largest space. In this space, Beckman has served on the teaching teams of three distinct courses — Design Methodology, an introductory course; Reimagining Slums, an advanced project-based class (both Design Innovation courses offered with the Department of Mechanical Engineering); and Collaborative Innovation, a course that was launched in 2016 and is offered jointly by the Haas School of Business, Department of Art Practice, and Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies.

The concept for Collaborative Innovation stemmed from faculty members in these departments being struck by unexpected connections between their fields — then wondering how they might prompt students to mine these connections in formulating creative interventions or solutions. “What we’re trying to do is to get the students to look across the areas — to think about what’s the same, what’s different — and appreciate the opportunity to use tools from other disciplines,” explains Beckman, “then apply the tools to attacking wicked problems, such as mental health awareness on the Berkeley campus.”

In its current iteration, the course involves a two-week module from each of the three disciplines, followed by team-based work on projects that draw from the approaches students have learned in the first part of the semester. The Jacobs Hall studio, Beckman says, makes it easy to quickly toggle between various formats, a crucial ability given the multi-disciplinary nature of the course. The studio may be set up with theater-style seating while students put on performances, for example, before furniture is rearranged to allow for group work and whiteboard brainstorming sessions. “There’s an openness….It’s nice to have the kind of space where students can really move around and put it to use,” notes Beckman, adding, “My colleague from Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, Lisa Wymore, starts our classes with body movement exercises that emulate the design work we will do in class that day and that use all of the space in the room.”

While the course doesn’t require use of Jacobs Hall’s equipment labs, Beckman says that she has seen some examples of the makerspace’s culture and capabilities infusing course processes. This past spring, for example, students were assigned to brainstorm ideas for selling drones as part of the business module in the course. During the class session, one student ran down to the makerspace and laser-cut a lo-fi prototype of a drone with solar panels, integrating this into his group’s presentation. Beckman is interested to see how connections like this may grow as students become more familiar with Jacobs Hall. Looking around at the third-floor studio’s glass walls, whiteboards, and post-it-covered surfaces, she also wonders how users might continue to bring the space to life, from exploring new tools for co-creating visually to providing space for students to leave ideas up for others to stumble upon. With this kind of open space, she says, “we have an opportunity to push things even further.”

“You get to create a project that you self-define — that’s a big deal.” — Scott Moura

Scott Moura, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, teaches an undergraduate capstone course, Design of Cyber Physical Systems, in Jacobs Hall. He smiles when he remembers the first day his students walked into the then-brand-new building for class, back in fall 2015: “I’ll never forget the looks on their faces,” he says.

Moura says that Jacobs Hall’s studios provide a physical environment that is designed for collaboration, from seating that allows students to face each other to integration with equipment labs. He also highlights the role of the building’s community in shaping student learning experiences, even beyond the classroom. Particularly as fields like civil engineering move into emerging areas like smart infrastructure, he notes, students can benefit from immersing themselves in design mindsets and methods. Moura points to a 2016 talk at Jacobs Hall, in which Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning highlighted the potential impact of infrastructure innovations, as an example of how participating in the institute’s interdisciplinary ecosystem can help his students place their specific interests within a broader design context.

He also sees the freedom to be creative as key to learning processes at Jacobs Hall. In Design of Cyber Physical Systems, students work in teams to create prototypes that range from smart gardening solutions to systems for optimizing home energy use, learning how to use tools like Arduinos and sensors along the way. “You get to create a project that you self-define — that’s a big deal,” says Moura. Reflecting on the most recent offering of the course, Moura describes the projects that have come out of this kind of open-ended, creative environment. “As the students were giving their presentations,” he recounts, “I was struck just by how awesome they were — and how much personality and creativity they showed.”

As the Jacobs Institute enters its third year, Moura is interested in how these kinds of advanced project-based courses can continue to scale up, expanding opportunities for students to dive into emerging concepts and take part in creative prototyping processes. “I’m excited to see the future,” he says.

“It’s really the heart of our course: enabling students to keep innovating.” — Albohassan Astaneh-Asl

Albohassan Astaneh-Asl, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Gary Black, associate professor of architecture, teamed up to create a new course, Innovative Sustainable Residential Design, when Jacobs Hall opened. “This is exactly what we were wishing for for years,” says Astaneh-Asl of the opportunity to develop a course that would be held in the new building.

Innovative Sustainable Residential Design, first offered in spring 2016, is open to students in both civil engineering and architecture, with the goal of connecting students from these two disciplines at the start of a design process. “We felt that putting architects and engineers in the same room, where the architect and the engineer can realize that there’s something to contribute from both teams early on in the process…that would actually make a better building,” explains Black. Prior to the course, many of the students from the two departments had never even met, but Astaneh-Asl and Black set out to help them collaborate as part of a fully integrated design team.

Astaneh-Asl and Black see Jacobs Hall as an ideal space for this kind of creative collaboration, mentioning the studios’ natural light, work tables, and easy makerspace access as key features. They also highlight the building’s positive culture and sense of community — a spirit they try to cultivate in the classroom as well. From the physical layout to team workflows, “we try to make the classroom feel like a design office,” says Astaneh-Asl.

A central element of the initial offering of Innovative Sustainable Residential Design was the final project, for which students broke into teams to develop concepts for a sustainable residential project at a site in Berkeley. This team-based approach led to a number of insights — not just for the students, but for the instructors as well. Realizing the role of intentionally structuring effective teamwork (particularly when working across disciplines), for example, the instructors drew from resources on team formation and evaluation developed by fellow Jacobs Hall instructor Sara Beckman and her collaborator Barbara Waugh. “There are so many resources on this here — I learned a lot,” says Astaneh-Asl.

Beyond these teaming tools, the instructors also hope to be able to continue to integrate more technology tools, such as rendering software, into future class sessions. They see the combination of flexible space and real-time access to technical tools as essential to the iterative, “just try it” approach they aim to foster in the classroom. Ultimately, they say, their role as instructors — particularly in a space like Jacobs Hall — is not just to impart information, but to help their students develop a design mindset that they can take with them once the course is over. Reflecting a common view at Jacobs Hall, Astaneh-Asl remarks, “It’s really the heart of our course: enabling students to keep innovating.”

Learn more about courses and curricular pathways at Jacobs Hall here. Want to see what students have created in courses like these? Explore sample projects.

By Laura Mitchell

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