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Introducing Students to Interdisciplinary Perspectives of Building and Urban Design

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Innovative Instructional Strategies for Integrating Sustainability

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

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Paper Authors


Abbie B Liel P.E. University of Colorado, Boulder

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Dr. Abbie B. Liel is an associate professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Sarah J. Welsh-Huggins University of Colorado, Boulder

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Ms. Welsh-Huggins, LEED Association, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Civil Engineering, studying the life-cycle economic, structural, and environmental impacts of buildings under hazard events and designed for sustainable, green design features. She also recently completed her M.S. in Structural Engineering, as well as a graduate certificate in Engineering for Developing Communities.

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A major challenge in engineering education is the effective integration of non-technical societal and environmental concerns with engineering design fundamentals. This paper describes a new course developed for first-year students that aims to introduce four factors that affect design, construction and management of the structures we live and work in—Safety, Sustainability, Style and Society—from qualitative and quantitative perspectives. Central questions discussed in the course are: What are our expectations for safety in the built environment? What are the impacts of buildings on the natural environment? What is the interplay between style, sustainability and safety in building design? The course is intended for students with interest in building design and use, regardless of background and major. Unlike more traditionally-oriented engineering courses, the curriculum applies concepts from architecture; structural, environmental and building systems engineering; urban development; economics; and public policy, in order to holistically examine building design and its impacts. The course aims to strengthen students’ ability to analyze and communicate ideas about building design across multiple discipline and to demonstrate how integration of dimensions of sustainability and social issues can lead to novel solutions to traditional engineering problems.

This paper details the curriculum and innovative instructional techniques developed for the semester-long seminar-style course at a large public university, including the design of laboratory activities, writing assignments, class discussion activities, and an end-of-semester term project. Laboratory activities include: (1) construction of concrete shell structures using plaster and fabric, (2) creating and developing a city in the SimCity software platform, and responding to external and societal pressures in the simulation, and (3) evaluation of a building’s environmental impact through LEED scoring and life-cycle environmental impacts software, among others. Students were also introduced to non-engineering professions that rely on collaboration with engineers to develop sustainable solutions for the built environment through field trips and guest lectures, enabling the course to address challenges associated with emergency management, city planning, and low-income housing. While the activities were created for use in this holistic, semester-long course, they could also be used to incorporate societal or sustainable thinking in other more engineering-oriented courses on building design. The paper will include as an appendix complete assignment sheets and grading rubrics for the key assignments.

This paper evaluates these activities to assess student achievement of learning objectives, and changes in perceptions of multi-disciplinarity and sustainability during the course. The assessment is based on (a) examples of student work, (b) feedback from students during university-administered course questionnaires, and (c) a pre- and post-survey on student perceptions about buildings, the built environment, and sustainability, from the first offering of the course. The paper finishes with discussion of an instrument for measuring changes in student perceptions and understanding of sustainability in an introductory interdisciplinary course and challenges in measuring the impacts of this course over students’ university careers.

Liel, A. B., & Welsh-Huggins, S. J. (2016, June), Introducing Students to Interdisciplinary Perspectives of Building and Urban Design Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25460

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