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A Technical Design Challenge: A Medium for Integrating Technical Knowledge and Design Skills


Abstract and Figures

This paper discusses the effectiveness of engaging students with a “design challenge” to bridge the two common sectors of lecture-based courses and design studios in architecture curriculum. This study is set out to describe the planning and implementation of a typical design challenge and critically review its capacity in conveying as-needed technical knowledge to students through both analytical and experimental approaches. Furthermore, the paper provides empirical evidence through an explanation of a 90-day experience with a team of undergraduate students who participated in a university-wide CleanTech Challenge. Finally, the recent experience of implementing a design challenge is synthesized into three sets of considerations, including the instructor’s role, the students’ engagement, and space-supplies requirements, and some substantial considerations are suggested for better conducting a hybrid learning environment.
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Expanding the View: 109th ACSA Annual Meeng 1
Keywords: Design challenge, CleanTech, Platic waste,
Architecture educaon, Pedagogy.
This paper discusses the eecveness of engaging students
wi th a “design ch alle nge” to bridge th e tw o co mm on se ctors
of lecture-based courses and design studios in architecture
cu rr ic ul um . Th is st ud y is set out to des cr ib e th e pl anning an d
implementaon of a typical design challenge and crically
review its capacity in conveying as-needed technical knowl-
edge to students through both analycal and experimental
approaches. Furthermore, the paper provides empirical
evidence through an explanaon of a 90-day experience
with a team of undergrad uate student s wh o par cipated in
a university-wide CleanTech Challenge. Finally, the recent
experience of implemenng a design challenge is synthesized
into three sets of consideraons, including the instructor’s
role, the students’ engagement, and space-supplies require-
ments, and some substanal consideraons are suggested
for beer conducng a hybrid learning environment.
A growing body of literature in architectural design pedagogy
indicates that the informaon carryover from a lecture-based
course into studio ulizaon is signicantly less than the
informaon carryover from as-needed studio talks or discus-
sion sessions
. Hence, several aempts have been made to
oer technical knowledge through some hands-on acvies
or group projects in lecture-based courses
. Such acvies
develop a conceptual schema and allow the acquired knowl-
edge to reside in the student’s mind for the long term. This
paper proposes the eecveness of engaging students with
a “design challenge” to bridge the two common sectors of
lecture-based courses and design studios in architecture cur-
riculum. Design challenges may be planned and implemented
as a part of a lecture-based class or be oered as an indepen-
dent opportunity within the curriculum.
In the rst secon of this paper, the specic features of a typi-
cal design challenge are described, including both its analycal
and experimental approaches in conveying as-needed techni-
cal knowledge to students. The design challenge’s specicity
is explained by comparing it with design studio projects and
research projects in lecture-based courses.
The second part of the paper describes a 90-day experience
with a team of undergraduate students who parcipated in
a university-wide CleanTech Challenge3. This part includes an
explanaon of how the students ed their technical knowledge
on waste transformaon in the building industry. Furthermore,
the students’ arfacts made out of plasc wastes, along with
the key themes that they learned and employed throughout
this challenge, are presented. In the nal secon, the recent
experience of implemenng a design challenge is synthesized
into three sets of consideraons, including the instructor’s
role, the students’ engagement, and the space-supplies
requirements. Such a discussion elucidates the contribuon of
similar design challenges to architecture educaon. Moreover,
some substanal consideraons are suggested for beer con-
ducng a hybrid learning environment.
Unlike convenonal design studio projects and group projects
in lecture-based courses, where a pre-dened problem is to
be solved, a design challenge is open to include parcipant’s
thoughts in the problem idencaon
. Planning a design
challenge usually begins with drawing the prospecve par-
cipant’s aenon to socio-environmental concerns, such as
homelessness, the refugee crisis, pandemic health risks, and
global warming. Then, parcipants have the chance to nar-
row down a broad topic and propose a specic problem for
further invesgaon and soluon. Addionally, the outcome
of a design challenge is expected to be assessed by either
actual stakeholders or the corresponding market. However,
in convenonal design projects in both lecture-based classes
and studio sengs, a jury or team of instructors is expected
to review the design or research projects outcomes regard-
ing the curriculum-based topics and share their thoughts with
the students. Although both types of design exercises enhance
students’ creavity and crical thinking skills, a design chal-
lenge is expected to have greater emphasis on student
iniaves and leadership in idenfying the problem and the
problem-solving process. Accordingly, students may require
study cross-disciplinary topics to accomplish the design chal-
lenge. Moreover, the instructor has a minimum instruconal
role throughout the challenge and collaborates with the team
as a facilitator or project manager.
A Technical Design Challenge: A Medium for Integrang
Technical Knowledge and Design Skills
Portland State Univeristy
2A Technical Design Challenge: A Medium for Integrang Technical Knowledge and Design Skills
A typical design challenge is based on an iterave process that
includes the following steps:
1. Ini a o n of the challenge: According to the course-related
goals as well as a real-world problem, parcipants frame a
design challenge and arculate a design problem. The stu-
dents’ primary goals begin to shape at this early step.
2. Problem structuring: Prior to oering any soluon to the
arculated problem, the students must study the precedents
and understand the problem’s context. In this step, they are
expected to learn about the constraints that may arise from the
problem space, economic limitaons, human resources, users
expectaons, and polical and social maers. Furthermore,
students may need to incorporate cross-disciplinary studies
on topics far from their major to understand and solve the
problem beer.
3. Ideaon: Through a divergent thinking approach, such as a
collaborave brainstorming session, the team may propose a
series of possible soluons.
4. Early evaluaon: The team needs to lter the primary
soluons through a convergent process. They should have
dened their goals explicitly early in the rst two steps. They
may iterate the third and fourth steps to select a single or a
few soluons that t. If any contradictory objecves exist,
the team should make a trade-o or innovavely resolve the
. Then, they can move on to the next step of
soluon development. They may need to revise their selecon
based on their future studies and test results.
5. Prototyping: Not all the design challenges require a physi-
cal prototype. Somemes, the expectable outcome includes
the planning or drawing of the proposal. However, in most of
the challenges, making a tangible arfact provides parcipants
with an opportunity to directly observe the performance of
the outcome and receive wider and clearer feedback from
the stakeholders.
6. Performave evaluaon: The arfac ts should be tested by
clear and pre-dened criteria and requirements. For instance,
the prototype of a portable carbon capture system can be
evaluated through an actual experiment and measure the
amount of captured carbon. Another example is the assess-
ment of praccality of a newly developed building through
the construcon process and building operaon. Shiing the
assessment system from external authories’ judgment to
user feedback and test results helps students improve their
self-assessment and crical thinking skills.
7. Post-processing: Parcipants should document the enre
process of the design challenge, including the idencaon
of the problem and relevant constraints, outcomes of brain
storming sessions, applied theories, design decisions, detailed
illustraons, and specicaons, as well as the results of tests
and experiments. Then, they can post-process their prototype
and make the required adjustments.
The abovemenoned characteriscs of a design challenge
help students employ technological knowledge and scienc
concepts in a new context
. Table 1 highlights the dierent
features of a typical design challenge with convenonal design
Table 1: The features of a typical design challenge, a convenonal design studio projec t, and a convenonal research-based design project in
lecture-based courses.
Scope Process Outcome Assessment
A research-based
design project in
lecture-based classes
course-related topics
Expanding stu-
dent’s knowledge
1. Studying the pre-
dened problem
2. Proposing a solu-
on to the problem
3. Evaluaon
• Reports
• Papers
• Posters
• Presentaons
• Instructor’s
A convenonal
design studio project
design creavity
• Applicaon of inter-
disciplinary studies
1. Studying the pre-
dened problem and
relevant precedents
2. Designing a soluon
3. Evaluaon
• Mass models
• Scaled models
• Peer-review
• In-house jury usually
only from the eld
of architecture
A design challenge Fostering
design creavity
theorecal and
experimental studies
The seven described
steps, in parcular:
Problem idencaon
and post-processing
• A real-size prototype
• Supplemental
documents such
as user’s manual
• User ’s assessment
• Experimental tests
Expanding the View: 109th ACSA Annual Meeng 3
studio projects and a convenonal research-based design
project in lecture-based courses.
The PSU CleanTech Challenge is an annual design opportunity
inially planned to inspire innovators and creave student
teams to address today’s most pressing environmental
problems. In winter 2020, een third-year undergraduate
students in the Architecture program, taking tectonic courses,
parcipated in this challenge. They were expected to study the
life cycle of dierent materials, learn about cradle-to-grave
versus cradle-to-cradle cycles, and invesgate waste trans-
formaon methods. The process through which the student
ed their socio-environmental concerns with their theorecal
studies on waste transformaon is described in the following.
Steps 1 and 2: Initiation of the challenge and
problem structuring
Early at the beginning of the design challenge, some of the plas-
c waste facts raised signicant concerns. For instance, some
esmates indicate that 40 billion plasc utensils are wasted per
year in the U.S alone. Furt he r ex pl or a on has shown that pl as -
c items do not go into regular recycling containers in many
states and end up in landlls and our waterways just aer a
single-use. The small size of these items doesn’t allow them to
be sorted from other recyclable materials. Addionally, turn-
ing suc h items into new mate rials is not an ec onomic de cisio n.
Reusing the materials for purposes that let them be in close
contact with users’ bodies is abandoned because of saniza-
on consideraons. Such informaon raised concerns for the
student parcipants who were the consumers of such plas-
c items in food courts and fast-food restaurants. They had
learned that the three “R” waste management strategies are
Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle. However, they were exposed to
a situaon where reusing and recycling were rejected in some
ways. Thus, they explored further possibilies for counteract-
ing such an environmental hazard. Ulmately, reducing plasc
waste emissions through fostering relevant conversaons
with people became their rst design goal. Second, the idea
of upcycling these plasc wastes was brought up7, suggesng
the conversion of the wastes into new products and repurpos-
ing them in an improved condion.
The next step was invesgang the relevant context and con-
straints. A rough esmaon indicated that in a typical food
court discards 28,000 plasc utensils daily. This amount of
plasc waste produced by just one food court results in the
emission of more than half a kilo pound of carbon dioxide
and wastes 3,000 kW/hr of energy per day. The amounts of
discarded plasc items, carbon emission, and wast of energy
per year reach to catastrophic levels. Students determined
to design a building assembly out of plasc waste within a
brainstorming session and gives these plascs a new life cycle.
Meanwhile, students were prompted to clarify the scope of
the expected outcome by being asked the following quesons?
1. What will be the speci c advant ages and limitaons of their
arfact in comparison with the exisng products made out of
upcycled or recycled plasc material?
2. Considering three aspects of their design outcome, includ-
ing its performance, life cycle footprint, and poec expression,
what are their arfacts’ suitable applicaon?
Steps 3 and 4: Ideaon and early evaluaon
Each student made a module of a tectonic element to form a
larger surface or volume. The generated models ranged from
prototypes with regular and replicable geometry to other sets
with innite and exible geometry that could easily shape
curved and irregular surfaces (see gure 1).
Aer a discussion session, suitable alternaves that merited
further design consideraon were selected based on the fol-
lowing criteria:
1. Diversity of ulized utensils regarding their size, shape,
color, and texture
2. Required me for fabricaon of the assembly
3. Ease of making the joints (e.g., wrapping, pin-
ning, and welding)
4. Flexibility in maintenance and replacement of some ele-
ments during the life span of the assembly
5. Stability of the panels (a minimum requirement of being self-
standing was considered)
6. Compability with dierent spaal sengs such as dierent
framing layouts or posion of backup wall or structure
7. Clarit y and simplicity of geometr y of the assembly
Students emphasized their product’s socio-educaonal eects
with several backs-and-forth conversaons regarding model-
making and invesgaon of dierent aspects of the plasc
waste problem. They reached a consensus on addressing the
plasc waste issue by displaying the collected wastes in a
poec or monolithic way and encouraging their audience to be
a part of the soluon. Finally, the possibility of user’s collabora
on on the assembling process became the last but not the
least objecve that necessitates a low-tech design approach.
Steps 5 and 6: Prototyping and performave evaluaon
4A Technical Design Challenge: A Medium for Integrang Technical Knowledge and Design Skills
It took some iteraons to rene the geometry of the suitable
prototypes and establish an instruconal procedure for creat-
ing the geometry. A graphic assembly instrucon was prepared
to encourage the users to be a part of the manufacturing team
(see gure 2). In preparaon of this user’s manual, eorts have
been made to demonstrate the assembling process in a way
that non-exper t users can understand and become engaged.
In conclusion, incorporaon of a design challenge with a
technical course in an architecture program, helps students
acquire and apply the technical knowledge on an as-needed
basis. The design challenge needs to be planned thoroughly to
feature both socio-environmental concerns and the relevant
technical issues.
Fostering and sustaining student movaon are the major
concerns in the implementaon of a design challenge. Failure
to idenfy the problem or determine the design goals may
trigger disappointment and hinder students from mak-
ing a connuous eort and reiterang some steps to get
the suitable outcome. Usually, engaging students with the
Figure 1: Assembly modules of plasc utensils fabricated by a group of students at the School of Architecture, Portland State University, Winter
2020. Image credit: Anahita Khodadadi.
Expanding the View: 109th ACSA Annual Meeng 5
Figure 2: The assembly instruc ons of the one of the arfacts
created by Nate Mason. Image credit: Anahita Khodadadi
current socio-environmental crisis in their own community
will strengthen their passion for posive change. Such an
approach leads students to in-depth study and enhances their
problem-solving and leadership skills.
Furthermore, an authenc instruconal pracce can sup-
port a student’s learning and design process. The instructor
is expected to create a culture that encourages agenve
problem-solvers to take acons, to design with, and design
for community members. The instructor may also prompt stu-
dents to link the foundaonal theories and scienc concepts,
reect on the producve failure, and lead the collaborave
work to the last step. The instructor may also guide students
regarding appropriate methods of documentaon, resolv-
ing contradictory design objecves, and decision-making.
Furthermore, occasional prompts may help students to recon-
sider structure of the dened problem, and become aware of
possible mistakes in applicaon of a certain technical theory.
Partnerships with maker spaces and themed training
workshops will help students acquire the knowledge or
experience they cannot obtain through convenonal lecture-
based courses.
Future works may focus on the logic of producon based on a
completely closed resource cycle. Through this approach any
non-recyclable material can be inially designed for two or
more sets of life cycles.
My thanks to Annemarie Jacques for her contribuon to
this challenge and Juan Barraza, the Coordinator of the PSU
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