Eureka! Come and play to demystify those materials

June 6, 2003

Engineering and design students had no feel for composites until they were brought together by Caroline Baillie

When I first walked into Rhode Island School of Design some years back, I was surrounded by wood. Wood in all shapes and sizes. Wood from different trees. Wood forming bodies, moons, starfish, a stool for people to touch while talking. I smelt wood. I felt wood.

I moved on through to a sea of metals being heated, cast and twisted. I saw these materials for the first time on that day. So many ways of shaping, sawing, casting and pouring. The way that the students there "lived" their materials in the course of realising their designs mesmerised me.

I set about thinking about how I could help engineering students get more of a feel for materials, rather than simply learn from the formulae and graphs for brass, steel or plastic. What were we teaching these students if we did not help them see the potential?

I visited an arts department in a UK university. There I saw an opposing pattern. Design students did not seem to know much about the structural potential of the materials they worked with. It seemed that materials-led design was not common.

A "composite" of students seemed the obvious solution - something that was more than the sum of the parts. With Chris Rose of Brighton Design School and Jane Pritchard as project manager, we plotted a composite campaign.

Many thought we were crazy. But we won a European Union grant to take "Composites on Tour" around Europe. This involved a huge trailer housing a composite exhibition that attracted 40,000 visitors last year. That bright orange trailer is still touring. It's now on a three-month stint in the UK.

We also hosted two "Composites in Design" competitions - one for students and one for professionals. To help students prepare, we held workshops in three locations: Naples in Italy, Delft in Holland and Thame in the UK. The workshops were aimed at engineering students who knew about composites but little about design, and at design students who knew little about materials.

After a day of courses on creative and visual thinking, concept realisation and composite materials principles, students were asked to work in small teams and brainstorm. They were then given an incubation space, paint, pens, paper, clay and tooling and moulding material, plus a little lubrication - beer in Holland, wine in Italy.

The next day they had the freedom of a composites manufacturing laboratory and a brave technician on hand to help them realise their designs.

They played with the materials in ways that they had never done before.

Some engineering students said they had considered composites only as a set of equations. The design students said they had never really encountered composites and were fascinated by the notion of "freezing" fabric into any shape by infiltrating it with resin and curing.

At first, the design students came up with some crazy ideas to which the engineering students responded with theoretical advice. Soon, however, the engineering students were exploring ideas of their own, and the design students began to see how to use the composites. What really surprised the technicians was that students could design, make and build useful and beautiful articles in a day. One curious cultural difference was that the Italian engineers were the most romantic, creating with colour and emotion, their designs often reflecting their surroundings, for example sculptures of Mount Vesuvius. The Dutch designers, meanwhile, were the most innovative, creating functional products utilising the qualities of composites by extremely efficient teamwork. The most original was a holder to prevent cigarettes being crushed in your pocket.

The UK workshop had the most diverse cultural mix of students - Swedish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Colombian and British. The location was a Formula One training facility at Rycotewood College, Thame, Oxfordshire, and students drew on that theme for designs such as a Formula One Zimmer frame for the active granny and a geodesic dome.

Paul Legace of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaking at the recent European Conference on Composite Materials, said that when two unknowns join, a eureka moment can occur. This is exactly what has happened with our students.

I now have a vision of some huge warehouse full of materials in which all design and engineering students can come and play for a while. Maybe I will invite their lecturers first.

Caroline Baillie is Dupont Canada professor in engineering education research and development at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. She was formerly deputy director of the UK Centre for Materials Education.


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