Physical Design Media in Spatial Thinking

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipientRobert Woodbury, School of Interactive Arts and Technology

Project teamHalil Erhan, School of Interactive Arts and Technology, and John Dill, School of Interactive Arts and Technology, Rachel Au, Shervin Jannesar, Rachel Spinelli, and Ian Woodbury, research assistants

Timeframe: September 2015 to March 2017

Support provided: $5,000

Course addressed: IAT 106 – Spatial Thinking and Communicating

Final report: View Robert Woodbury's final report (PDF)

Description: “How can we motivate students to prototype fast, early and often?, “How can we better engage students in the physical aspects of this course in spatial thinking?”, and “How can we engender a sense of wonder and exploration in spatial thinking?”

Most students commencing their university studies in design must confront and master three new modes of thought. The first, widely known as reflection-in -action Schön (1983), is a continuous cycle of self-criticism and creation that produces both learning and improved work. The second, which we call design making, is an attitude and an open-ended process by which a design and its construction are made to cohere. Beginning students tend to do neither very well; their largely analytic secondary education is poor preparation for these new forms of learning and working. The third is frequent and persistent use of design media to develop work. Contemporary design media comprise three representations of the object-to-be-designed: sketches, computer models and physical prototypes. Students struggle with each of these, but especially physical prototyping.  All three are integral to and occur throughout the course IAT106-Spatial Thinking and Communicating.

Over many years, we have jointly developed the course IAT 106 as an introduction to the above. The course comprises lectures on concepts and techniques, and labs in which students develop skills which are subsequently applied in projects. While we are mostly satisfied with student work in sketching and computer modeling, we find students less capable, indeed timid, in physical prototyping. Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, they have great difficulty in understanding how their sketches relate to the real physical 3-dimensional world their sketches purport to represent.

This proposal is for resources to further extend and develop spatially intriguing objects (SIO’s) and their associated exercises, and to conduct an exploratory evaluation of what students can and might gain from such.

This is an exploratory project to be conducted in two phases. Phase 1—the current proposal—will focus on design, prototyping and initial use of the spatial puzzles. Following the successful iteration of Phase 1 we intend to apply for another T&L grant to fund Phase 2, which will focus on evaluation of the effectiveness of spatial puzzles in engaging students learning of design and prototyping. Thus our main questions in both phases will focus on how our proposed student experience, supported by our prepared constructed objects, supports our three main goals: motivate students to use prototyping as one of their spatial thinking tools (prototype fast, early and often); engage students with the physical aspects of design making; and engender a sense of wonder and exploration in spatial thinking.

From the literature and our experiences in teaching spatial thinking and design, we hypothesize that spatially intriguing objects appropriately presented as puzzles can invoke students’ engagement in learning design and prototyping. In the first phase we propose mainly to focus on development of these puzzles and conducting short-cycle formative evaluation via informal focus groups with students. Our goals in the formative evaluation are to: (a) evaluate the student’s reaction to the puzzles; (b) gather students’ input to enhance the puzzles; (c) review and revise how to introduce puzzles. We will also seek ideas for new puzzles at this time.

We aim to develop about new six puzzles to be studied over the semester, a new puzzle introduced every two weeks. Our formative evaluation will use informal focus group meetings following the week the puzzle is introduced.

Questions addressed:    

  • How can we motivate students to prototype fast, early and often?
  • How can we better engage students in the physical aspects of this course in spatial thinking?
  • How can we engender a sense of wonder and exploration in spatial thinking?
  • How students make connections among the course elements (reflection, design making, design media)

Knowledge sharing: We can present this work at the SIAT Research Colloquium and to the SIAT Undergraduate Curriculum Committee. At this point, our focus is on improving the making and spatial thinking capabilities in SIAT students. We would expect to publish our results, but this will require an evaluation component, in a future Phase 2 of the project.