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Virtual Hands-on: Taking a Design Lab Online

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Impact of COVID-19 on Design Education 1

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Clarke Snell Stevens Institute of Technology Orcid 16x16

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Clarke Snell’s professional focus is the development and application of sustainable and resilient building systems toward a zero resource architecture. Specifically he applies research into low-tech, high performance materials, assemblies, and systems to the design and construction of small buildings and their micro-climates with the goal of repeatable and quantifiable reductions in project carbon footprint. He holds a Master of Architecture from the University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) and has experience in construction as a builder and design as the principal of his own residential design and consulting firm. Clarke has written three books and numerous articles on alternatives to standard construction methodologies. He is currently an Industry Associate Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Ocean Engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology where he teaches design and works to develop and teach methodologies for merging engineering and architectural workflows for low energy building design.

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Emil Pitz Stevens Institute of Technology

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Emil Pitz is a mechanical engineering PhD student at Stevens Institute of Technology. His research focuses on stochastic failure analysis of composites and the application of artificial intelligence in the design of composite structures. Additionally to his research, he has been working as a teaching assistant at Stevens. Pitz holds a Master’s degree in Polymer Technologies and Science from Johannes Kepler University, Austria.

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Louis Oh Stevens Institute of Technology

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Louis Oh is a Design Laboratories Manager of Stevens Institute of Technology and a student of the Mechanical Engineering Masters program. Louis has 10 years of experience in CNC machine spindles, and his expertise includes failure inspection, spindle condition analysis, and monitoring using vibration signals and sound emissions.

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For engineering design curricula, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced an interesting design challenge of its own. How do we run normally hands-on, data-driven labs on-line that emulate the experience of a turnkey design project that produces a physical prototype?

“Structural Performance and Failure” is a required team-based sophomore design class at our university. The project topic is the design, fabrication, testing, and analysis of trusses. The pedagogical context is the application of theory informed by data to solve a defined problem through an iterative design process. Tension, compression, and shear are introduced in the context of truss theory. Theoretical calculations and published specifications are juxtaposed to data collected from testing brass profile and assembly samples toward the understanding of how geometry and loads interact. Truss geometries are then analyzed mathematically to calculate theoretical failure loads and modes. The final design project involves choosing base geometries and iterating them toward a chosen design goal guided by an understanding of the data-attenuated theory. Groups choose one truss design to fabricate and test, allowing a comparison of theoretical and empirical failure results.

When analyzing this course to go on-line, we realized that students do only two things hands-on in the lab: data collection and prototype fabrication. We can supply data and prototype testing gleans only two datapoints: truss failure load and weight. If we remove these two curriculum components, the bulk of the work and learning outcomes remain intact: a complex, creative thought process linking theory and data that is quantified and expressed through Excel.

This realization led to more detailed explorations in Excel, adjusting the assignments to go deeper into calculation and display capabilities. Tension, compression, and shear theory are compared to material and profile data in a series of detailed investigations that require careful calculation sequences linked to clear display graphics. In addition, assignments are presented as real-world design exercises requiring Excel modelers that allow for quick input adjustment to produce automated design outputs. In the final project, the design process is similar to the in-class curriculum with truss geometries analyzed and iterated, but a “theoretical-empirical” truss design is conceived to replace fabrication. This design adds the physical dimensions and strength analysis of joints and uses empirical data rather than theoretical calculations to estimate truss member strength and weight. This approach allows a comparison between simple planar truss geometry and actual physical dimensions of a “theoretical-empirical” truss that could be fabricated, thus maintaining the theory to practice comparison of the hands-on course. Project data is quantified and clearly displayed through a nuanced interlinked automated multi-page Excel modeler.

What the on-line course looses in hands-on lab experience, it gains in a more robust investigation of the interplay between data and theory, a deeper dive into Excel as a design resource, and a very specific demand that teams display their understanding of theory as applied to an iterative design process. This paper describes the specifics of how this was accomplished and the preliminary results gleaned from two semesters of running the course on-line.

Snell, C., & Pitz, E., & Oh, L. (2021, July), Virtual Hands-on: Taking a Design Lab Online Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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