Tapping into Engineering’s Artful Side

The restructured Art of Engineering class puts students in touch with the field’s possibilities

Apr 21 2017 | By Jennifer Earnst Beaudry | Photo and Video by Jane Nisselson

Professor David Vallancourt believes that an abiding creativity underpins the field of engineering—and it’s that playful, collaborative spirit that he wants to incubate in his newly revamped Art of Engineering Class. Students don’t just learn about engineering in this introductory course; they get hands-on with the different disciplines to explore, design, and create.

Explore the Art of Engineering.

“It was quite deliberate, using ‘art’ as the first word,” Vallancourt said. “I literally mean that engineering is an art, with everything that goes with it.”

The one-semester course, which surveys the engineering disciplines, is a requirement for all freshmen in the School of Engineering, and it occasionally draws curious students from Barnard and Columbia College. The course has been a staple of Columbia’s undergraduate engineering program for years, but starting with the 2016–2017 school year, it has a new five-pillar structure that combines deep technical learning, hands-on experimentation, and group projects designed to connect students to both the broader engineering community and one another. As led by Vallancourt, a Columbia Engineering alum himself (BS’81, MS’84, and PhD’87) and the current senior lecturer in circuits and systems, the class draws deeply on a sense of engineering as a critical element of the liberal arts.

“If you’re here at Columbia for engineering, what we have to offer that most schools can’t touch is the quality of the instruction,” he said. “Columbia is very, very good across the board. I took advantage of that, and that’s what I want to bring to this course.”

The first of the five pillars is covered in the Friday lectures that discuss each Engineering department. The talks leverage Vallancourt’s experience, as well as that of fellow faculty members and outside lecturers who present their current projects and what they’re actively designing—“real applications of the physics or math they know,” Vallancourt said. The lectures, which also cover topics like patents and engineering ethics, and the history and culture of the field, are designed to put engineering into context, he said.

Student teams build robots to navigate a maze.

The second pillar, a newer addition, is community engagement. Students are required to connect with the broader engineering world by joining campus groups like Engineers Without Borders or service groups that are working in the community on projects like advising local high school robotics clubs.

A third piece of the course is a MATLAB unit that introduces the students to the programming language and data science as a whole through simulation projects. This year, the students are taking the passenger manifest from the Titanic and using machine learning to predict which voyagers survived.

“Making is just a portion of the actual engineering. A lot of it is thinking about how you could go about the problem,” said student Irene Chen ’20SEAS.

Two projects round out the curriculum. Students each select a department project from a list that includes an option from each engineering major, which gives students who have chosen their majors already a chance to tackle a different side of engineering and students who are still undecided an opportunity to try out a discipline that interests them.

Finally, the common project organizes students into teams and introduces them to Columbia’s MakerSpace to create. Past projects have included reimagining a TV remote for use by the elderly and then 3D printing a prototype, and using an Arduino board to craft handheld video game systems.

The project is “a fun thing that is still very technical and that gives them hands-on skills right away,” Vallancourt said. Nehemie Guillomaitre ’20SEAS said the class changed the way she thinks about engineering—and her own plans. She is pursuing a major in chemical engineering, so she chose the mechanical engineering department project: building a robot that could navigate a maze and blow out a candle.

“I didn’t think I could do it, but I got it done and, honestly, I really loved it. In fact, I decided to do a minor in mechanical engineering,” she said. A similar experience with the common project, in which Guillomaitre and her teammates made a snake game, helped solidify her plans.

“Before this, I didn’t know how to code at all, and now I’ve coded a robot and a game and used a laser cutter. You can do so much more than you realized you could,” she said. The lab time she spent honing her skills has already paid dividends: a professor who saw her clocking time on her projects invited her to be a researcher.

Since the course is designed to be “freewheeling and fun and adaptive,” as Vallancourt puts it, it changes each semester as new developments, new projects, and new interests filter in. An outside lecturer on entrepreneurship who had given a TED Talk, for example, fielded a number of questions about the TED experience. Now, every student in the class writes his or her own TED-style talk, and the five best are presented at the end of the semester.

Vallancourt said he wants the course to be able to broaden students’ understanding of what they can be as engineers—and what engineering can be to them and to the world. “Columbia did that for me,” Vallancourt said. “And every semester we try to improve it a little bit.”

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