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A Multi-disciplinary Approach to Developing an Introductory Course in Engineering and Architecture



Engineering and architecture is aimed at improving the life of humans by designing and building products and services to the needs of civilizations. In real life settings, designing and building a product/service is a multidisciplinary event that involves the collaboration of a variety of specialists from different backgrounds. Accordingly, students need to acquire multidisciplinary skills and a holistic view of the world to be more successful in their future jobs. A committee of faculty from various disciplines in engineering and architecture at the American University of Beirut (AUB) was entrusted to design and introduce a new course that inspires creativity in engineering and design, engages first-year students from architecture and various engineering disciplines, and above all provides a multidisciplinary experience to engineering education. This paper presents the theory, pedagogy, and background of introducing such a course to engineering and architecture students at AUB.
A Multi-disciplinary Approach to Developing an Introductory Course
in Engineering and Architecture
Farook Hamzeh 1,Hazem Hajj
2, Naseem Daher3, Carla Aramouny4, Mu’tassem Shehadeh 5, and
Karim Najjar 6
1Department of Civil Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture,
American University of Beirut
2Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture,
American University of Beirut
3Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering,
Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, American University of Beirut
4, 6 Department of Architecture and Design, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture,
American University of Beirut
5Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, American
University of Beirut
Abstract – Engineering and architecture is aimed at improving the life of humans by designing
and building products and services to the needs of civilizations. In real life settings, designing and
building a product/service is a multidisciplinary event that involves the collaboration of a variety
of specialists from different backgrounds. Accordingly, students need to acquire multidisciplinary
skills and a holistic view of the world to be more successful in their future jobs. A committee of
faculty from various disciplines in engineering and architecture at the American University of
Beirut (AUB) was entrusted to design and introduce a new course that inspires creativity in
engineering and design, engages first-year students from architecture and various engineering
disciplines, and above all provides a multi-disciplinary experience to engineering education. This
paper presents the theory, pedagogy, and background of introducing such a course to engineering
and architecture students at AUB.
Keywords – Multi-disciplinary education, introduction to engineering and architecture,
innovation in education, pedagogy.
1. Introduction
While education continues to advance towards more focus on specialized disciplines, the
job market seems to be advancing at a faster pace towards multi-disciplinarily skills, with
a much higher demand for well-rounded engineers and architects. Generally speaking,
students often graduate in Engineering or Architecture without holistically understanding
the different engineering perspectives and disciplines that enter into the whole
engineering and design process. Students from the different departments of Engineering
(e.g. Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Computer, Industrial, Chemical, etc.) are often
educated in silos with little exposure to the other disciplines. Architecture students,
although commonly educated about the role of engineering disciplines within the
building industry, are often not exposed to working jointly with engineers, and tend to
design and develop their ideas in a detached manner. This lack of exposure, in turn, leads
to lack of influence, and hence reduces the possibility for crossings of minds and
disciplines, necessary often for innovation. This also leads to misconstruing possible
constraints during the early stages of the design process. Furthermore, students
sometimes face difficulties after graduation, when they find themselves in work
environments that require them to work in teams from multiple disciplines.
On another note, students often enter university, without being fully aware of their
program’s constituents, and without having sufficient information to make an educated
choice. This is particularly true for students entering the Faculty of Engineering and
Architecture (FEA) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) where students are not
always clear about the distinction or overlaps between the different disciplines.
For these different reasons, an idea for cross-education in early years across FEA
is proposed to expose students to the different disciplines and encourage collaboration,
innovation, teamwork, and well-rounded knowledge. The goal is to have a common
course that can introduce and educate new students to the different disciplines in
engineering and architecture, in their first year. An additional motivation for the
introductory nature of this education is that it could help students make a more educated
choice of the program or field that they want to continue in. This objective presents
several challenges. First, the instructor of such a course needs to be skilled in the
different disciplines to provide the necessary multi-disciplinary information with
sufficient depth. Second, the course content needs to have the right balance of being
challenging, educational, and fun. The students need to be educated, yet at the same time
enjoy the course and its varied content. Another challenge, of course, would be to bring
together a large number of students from the different programs, in one course that needs
to address and tailor for their different fields.
In this paper, we present this new introductory course targeted at first year
students entering the programs of Engineering and Architecture. The course is taught by
a committee of professors from the different programs, providing in-depth information
about every discipline and exposing the students to multi-disciplinary interactions. The
course is divided into program modules to enable flexibility in teaching of each field.
However, multi-disciplinary aspects are emphasized within each discipline’s module, and
a common theme is used to illustrate the potential overlaps. Example themes include
discussions about different aspects of a product, like a car or laptop, from design and
architecture to consideration for different elements and components in industrial,
chemical, electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows. Section 2 presents related work in
providing introductory engineering education to first year students. Section 3 provides a
detailed description of the targeted course. Section 4 provides a conclusion and future
2. Research Background
Several engineering schools have introduced a common undergraduate course for first
year engineering students. The American University of Sharjah, UAE introduced a 2-
credit hour required course for all students enrolled in the College of Engineering for six
departments (Computer Science, Civil, Chemical, Computer, Electrical, and Mechanical
Engineering). The goal of this course is to develop an understanding of the major
responsibilities of engineers, foster collaboration among engineering disciplines, form a
basic background in problem solving, as well as develop ethical responsibilities in
students. The course includes recitation lectures, six laboratory experiments each
pertaining to one engineering discipline and a common design project such as paper
bridges, Q-tip bridges, and paper airplanes. The results show, using both direct and
indirect evaluations, that this course benefited students, met its objectives and also met
ABET criteria. Furthermore, it was established that it is possible to provide a meaningful
and well-rounded design experience to undergraduate engineering students with minimal
conceptual foundation in their own engineering disciplines [2].
In response to the demand for enhanced design, problem-solving, and team
skills in engineering graduates, Pennsylvania State University has instituted a course for
first year engineering students to meet these fundamental aspects of the professions.
Researchers found that this is important because recent studies show that engineering
students are entering the workforce ill-prepared to solve real problems in a cooperative
way, lacking the skills and motivation to continue learning. The course introduces
students to design process skills in addition to traditional engineering content. It also
emphasizes the importance of graphical, oral, and written communication and
incorporates skill-oriented tasks, such as analysis, and interpretation of experimental data
into team-oriented design projects. During the course, students spend less time in lectures
and more time working on various hands-on design projects in teams. This allows them
to discover that they cannot engage in open-ended, team-based, design projects without
seeing that multiple solutions are possible, and that part of their task is to evaluate the
many potential solutions on criteria that they must define. The analysis also suggests that
having a multidisciplinary course may provide the type of intellectual environment that
stimulates students’ natural progression toward more complex thinking [3].
The Ohio State University provides its engineering students with a two course
sequence during their first year of engineering that involve skill development applicable
to all engineering disciplines. In these courses, students are required to design and build a
scaled version of a roller coaster. This project engages them in a working knowledge of
physics and engineering and exposes them to the various disciplines of engineering. The
analysis of this course has shown that it provides students since their first year with
crucial experience in time management, task scheduling, development of design
techniques and problem solving skills. Finally, it also exposes them to the constraints of
“real world” work and forces them to communicate and work in a collaborative
environment [4].
Virginia Tech University offers a course required for engineering and design
students with the target of showing students a glimpse of the real world and giving them a
taste of collaboration between engineers and designers on interdisciplinary design
projects. Throughout the years, the course contained different projects such as the design
of push-pull toys, LEGO programmable RCX bricks, and a walking device using a
rechargeable electric screwdriver as the power source. The responses towards this course
indicated an increased understanding and students’ appreciation for their own discipline
as well as the other disciplines. Working in interdisciplinary groups fostered
communication and allowed students to realize that “there is more to engineering than
taking in information and spitting out solutions” [5].
Worcester Polytechnic Institute offers an introductory course for all engineering
students, which focuses on the development of skills such as using software to solve
equations, plot data, create drawings, and write reports. The course project was to design
and build a prototype of a sensory stimulation table for an adult man with profound
mental retardation, which had to be submitted along with written and oral reports. The
remainder of the course consisted of lectures and laboratory sessions, which introduced
students to reverse engineering activities. The authors note that one key challenge in
designing a first-year problem-based common course is that students in the first year of
engineering have typically not been exposed to a course in engineering design. This is
why reverse engineering has been used to help students become familiar with the design
process. Course evaluations indicated that the class project, hands-on activities, and the
emphasis on case studies were well received by the students. However, considerable care
must be taken in utilizing and selecting design projects for first year courses. The authors
warn that such courses must include mechanisms for rapidly building student experience
in design while keeping in mind that they come with no background in engineering. The
project has to be simple enough yet motivating and effective [6].
Professors at Michigan State University have integrated their engineering
academic program and made it common to all first year engineering students. Among the
program requirements are courses based on themes essential to students across
engineering: design, engineering modeling, oral and written technical communication,
teamwork, creativity, ethics, and professionalism. Another goal for these courses is to
demonstrate to students the importance of engineering and the positive impact that
engineers make on society and the world around them. In a survey of all engineering
students who had taken the course, over 85% agreed that they felt that the course had
improved their team skills, and about 70% indicated strong agreement or agreement with
improvement in understanding the scope of engineering (applications, careers),
development of problem-solving skills, and positive gains in verbal and written
communication skills [7].
Miami University also offers first year interdisciplinary curriculum for
engineering students. The program includes a one-credit hour course required for all nine
engineering majors available. The course is entitled “Computing, Engineering and
Society.” The goal of this course is to allow students to “gain an understanding of the
work of a professional engineer, appreciate the various engineering majors, experience
the engineering design process, develop skills in problem solving, develop teamwork and
communication skills, and build community among students.” The course is divided into
lecture and laboratory sessions. The main focus is placed on the course project in which
students have to design and build a scaled train model layout prototypical to an era and
geographic region through which a given train line would operate. The evaluation of the
course showed that having an interdisciplinary course where students from various
engineering disciplines participate in a fairly realistic engineering experience, which
takes them through design in a team environment, is an effective approach in introducing
first year students to the fields of engineering [8].
Despite the presence of a wide range of courses that address a common first
year engineering class and several that address specific fields in engineering [9], the
committee in charge of developing such a course at the American University of Beirut
(AUB) is aiming to introduce a new course that inspires creativity in engineering and
design, engages first-year students from architecture and various engineering disciplines,
and above all provides a multi-disciplinary experience to engineering education.
3. Proposed Multi-Disciplinary Course
3.1. Course Description
The course is designed to familiarize first year students at the Faculty of Engineering and
Architecture with the different programs being taught, including: Architecture, Civil,
Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical, and Industrial Engineering. It takes a unique
multidisciplinary approach to the field, and introduces the related disciplines and the
technologies used in the world of engineering and architecture. One key objective is to
promote multidisciplinary interaction and innovative thinking. The course is organized
into modules covering the different disciplines within the Faculty of Engineering and
Architecture. The last module of the class showcases multidisciplinary projects
demonstrating interactions among the different fields. The lectures explain, as applicable
to each discipline and through examples, notions of problem solving, design thinking,
process of invention and innovation, environmental and civic responsibility, and
measures of success in aesthetics and performance. The course project is a key
component of the course, with a multidisciplinary nature, bringing ideas and solutions
from all disciplines in engineering and architecture.
The purpose of the course is to: introduce students to the different
engineering professions, provide students with an overview of engineering ethics,
present to the students the various areas within each of the engineering professions,
promote multidisciplinary interaction and innovative thinking, and foster effective
communication and teamwork skills among students.
3.2. Student (Learning) Outcomes:
Students who successfully complete this course will:1) have a realistic understanding of
the different engineering professions and the working environment of engineers; 2)
develop understanding of engineering ethics and professional responsibilities, and get
familiarized with codes of ethics of different engineering disciplines; 3) understand the
synergy between different engineering disciplines, and the importance of
multidisciplinary collaborations as integral to creativity and innovation; 4) be able to
work and function in a multidisciplinary environment; 5) develop understanding of
engineering problem-solving concepts and principles; 6) demonstrate an understanding of
the engineering design process including problem formulation, constraints, alternatives,
prototyping and testing; 7) be able to apply critical thinking and basic research skills to
formulate and exchange innovative ideas; 8) be able to integrate knowledge, methods,
and relevant information from related disciplines into the design processes; 9) develop an
awareness of challenges occurring in teamwork (e.g., task division, communication skills,
etc.); and 10) develop presentation skills.
3.3. Course Organization into Multi-disciplinary Modules
The course will be taught in modules. Each department in FEA will offer three 50-minute
lectures to cover the following aspects of “Who we are” in the specific discipline, “How
we integrate with other disciplines,” and seminars for invited speakers. The instructors
are expected to rotate yearly to maintain a level of freshness to the course.
To describe “Who we are,” each department’s lectures will first introduce the
program and the disciplines within the department. Students are informed about different
programs and related professions. Each instructor will then cover description of the
discipline curriculum. Finally, professors will share their experience and introduce their
work. Light and informal lectures are provided, where students can be inspired by guest
professionals who share their personal experience and showcase their work.
To describe “How we integrate/interact with the others,” each department’s
lecture will present cases that involved engineers or architects from other fields,
explaining how they impacted the process and the quality of the product. Students have
the opportunity to hear versions about the profession from different perspectives. Each
lecture aims to bring out interdisciplinary aspects with other fields and technology.
The course will also include a module providing an introduction to Codes of
Ethics and Professional Standards. This module prepares engineers and architects for
understanding the ethical expectations of the profession.
One module will also be dedicated to expose the students to hands-on technology
experience. The labs are meant to be fun and challenging, yet without requirements for
any particular background. As an example, the students may be asked to develop specific
designs with Lego Robotics integrating elements of design, architecture, programming,
mechanical, and civil engineering. The hands-on experience with engineering tools is
meant to support the use of technology and design, covering general engineering and
architecture concepts that are not necessarily specific to a particular area.
3.4. Course Project:
The course entails two projects that together provide the students with the necessary skill-
set and learning outcomes of the course. One project teaches students about the basics of
robotics, sensors, actuators, communication, computer software and hardware, and
embedded control by building a robot that contends with other robots in a competition
format. The second project teaches students about design innovation, originality,
complexity versus simplicity, functionality, aesthetics, and economy of means by
building a bridge. Performance assessment measures performance on the aforementioned
criteria. Both projects foster collaboration, team work, multidisciplinary approach, time
management, and effective communication skills.
Course projects are an essential component of the course. The goal of the
projects is to encourage students to be creative and innovative, understand the
multidisciplinary nature of engineering and architecture, relate aspects of the project to
the different disciplines in FEA, discover their own skills and strengths, apply concepts
and approaches learned, and work with teams of different FEA disciplines.
Students are assigned to groups. Where possible, each group of students must
be constituted of at least one student from each department. Each group will be assigned
to a faculty jury committee. The types of projects are intended to cover technology while
being fun (e.g. based on Lego Robotics), or open fostering creative thinking (e.g. building
bridge, robot competition, dropping eggs, etc.). Projects may not necessarily require their
physical presence in a lab. Students work on project 1 in the first half of the semester and
on project 2 in the second half.
Projects will go through trial and error before maturity, and they are intended to
be self-driven by the students. Lab instructors will be assigned to specific groups, and
will post their availability to the students. Professors (class instructors) are available
during office hours for additional consultation if needed.
3.5. Course Assessment
Student performance shall be evaluated as Pass/Fail based on the following strict criteria:
project contributions, class attendance, and lab evaluation. For project assessment, each
the team is required to reflect innovative input, teamwork, and understanding of the
project and hence each team is assesses based on these criteria. Each faculty committee
member will give a Pass/Fail evaluation at the end of semester for the groups they
oversee. They would also nominate exceptional projects for further competition and
awards. A competition will be held with the nominated groups, and finalists are awarded.
Up to four awards may be awarded per semester. Competition jury is the same as the
coordination committee or designates, if they choose.
For class assessment, attendance is mandatory and required in every class,
where students would be penalized for absences exceeding four sessions. The student
may seek to be exempt from counting a particular absence by presenting a petition along
with a documented valid excuse explaining the absences, to the course committee.
Attendance will also be subject to university regulations. For example, at the American
University of Beirut, students who miss more than one-fifth of the sessions of any course
in the first ten weeks of the semester will be required to withdraw from the course with a
grade of “W.”
For Lab assessment, each team will be assessed for Pass/Fail based on their
contribution and learning in Lab work and assignments.
4. Conclusion
This paper discusses the theory, pedagogy, and multidisciplinary approach of designing
an introductory course in engineering and architecture at AUB. The new course is
designed to meet the needs of future engineers and architects, and their employers, to
help them develop multidisciplinary skills, teamwork spirit, professional ethics, and
effective communication skills. It is designed to enhance the students understanding of
the various programs offered at the FEA, how they complement each other, and which
discipline is the right fit for them.
The course is aligned with the new trend in education where students from
different backgrounds are constantly engaged on multidisciplinary teams and challenged
to operate in environments that require collaboration, innovation, and problem solving.
While many leading academic institutions have adopted this trend, AUB is championing
the movement in Lebanon and the region. Although many similar courses exist in
engineering schools around the world, this can be considered one of the world’s first
courses addressing both engineering and architecture disciplines in one introductory
course that takes a multidisciplinary approach while encouraging creativity and
innovation in education. .
The course meets the basic requirements of the involved departments as well as
some requirements of the ABET accreditation system. Measures are taken and metrics
are defined to assess students learning outcomes. Future research will present actual
results describing the performance of the new course as well as lessons learned from
teaching the course to engineering and architecture students at AUB.
This research is supported by the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture at the
American University of Beirut. The authors would like to thank Dean Makram Suidan for
his support and visionary approach to engineering education. Any opinions, findings, and
conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect
those of the contributors.
5. References
[1] L. C. Bank, M. McCarthy, B. P. Thompson and C. C. Menassa, "Integrating BIM with system
dynamics as a decision-making framework for sustainable building design and operation," in
Proceedings of the First International Conference on Sustainable Urbanization (ICSU), 2010, .
[2] Aloul, F., Zualkernan, I., Husseini, G., El-Hag, A., & Al-Assaf, Y. (2014). A case study of a
college-wide first-year undergraduate engineering course. European Journal of Engineering
Education, 40(1), 32-51.
[3] Marra, R., Palmer, B., & Litzinger, T. (2000). The Effects of a First-Year Engineering Design
Course on Student Intellectual Development as Measured by the Perry Scheme. Journal of
Engineering Education, 89(1), 39-45.
[4] Merrill, J., Brand, S., & Hoffman, M. (2004). Work in Progress - Evolution & Implementation
of a Roller Coaster (Design-Build) Project for a First-Year Program. In 34th ASEE/IEEE
Frontiers in Education Conference.
[5] Goff, R., Vernon, M., Green, W., & Vorster, C. (2004). Using Design – Build Projects to
Promote Interdisciplinary Design. In 34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference.
[6] Hoffman, A., Liadis, K., & Boettcher, B. (2005). Work in Progress - Developing a Project
Based First Year Design Course. In 35th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference.
[7] Walton, S., Briedis, D., Urban-Lurain, M., Hinds, T., Davis-King, C., & Wolff, T. (2013).
Building the Whole Engineer: An Integrated Academic and Co-Curricular First-Year Experience.
In 120th ASEE Annual Conference and Exhibition.
[8] Troy, D., Keller, S., Kiper, J., & Kerr, L. (2008). First Year Engineering: Exploring
Engineering through the Engineering Design Loop. In 38th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education
[9] Tsao, C., Azambuja, M., Hamzeh, F., Menches, C., Rybkowski, Z. (2013) Teaching Lean
Construction- Perspective on Theory and Practice, Proceedings for the 21st Annual Conference of
the International Group for Lean Construction.
... If students from a certain discipline are not exposed to other fields, they end up designing and developing their ideas in a detached manner [1][2][3]. The lack of exposure reduces the possibility for cross pollination of minds and ideas that are often necessary for innovation [4]. Hence, adjusting engineering and architecture curricula to inject more interdisciplinary courses and enabling student communication across disciplines becomes a priority in modern education. ...
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