Carnegie Mellon Mechanical Engineering students undergo rigorous schooling, learning advanced computational and modeling techniques and difficult theoretical approaches. They certainly learn how to solve complex problems; however, when asked why they chose to become mechanical engineers, a lot of the students say that they just love to build.

Mechanical Engineering Professor Kenji Shimada knows this, which is why he created a new course, titled DIY Design and Fabrication, to help foster that love in his students. But Shimada wanted his creation to be more than just another class, so he enlisted teaching assistants Mechanical Engineering master’s student Matthew Powell-Palm and senior Judy Han to help him design and test the assignments.

“I designed the class to teach three things: design, fabrication, and communication,” says Shimada. “Unlike many engineering courses where you have three or four students creating something in a team, we wanted to give each, individual student the experience of building something they’re excited about from ideation all the way down to fabrication.”

Design and fabrication are important skills, but for an engineer’s work to have meaning, communication skills are key. That’s why a major part of the course teaches students to make professional-looking documents and posters explaining their designs in ways that incorporate key principles of communication design: choosing typefaces and colors, and incorporating whitespace to make the information more digestible.

We wanted to give each, individual student the experience of building something they’re excited about from ideation all the way down to fabrication.

Kenji Shimada, Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

A typical class begins with Shimada reviewing students’ work from the previous assignment, followed by a lecture to introduce new design methodology and fabrication techniques—from acrylic laser cutting, to resin casting, to polyurethane rapid expansion foam, and more. From there, Powell-Palm and Han take over.

“After that, we do a live demo of whatever technique we’re talking about. We’ll talk about what to keep an eye out for, which tools to use, what are the factors that contribute to the specific technique,” Powell-Palm explains. “Then Judy Han, the design specialist of the group, along with MechE junior Melissa Zucker will teach sketching ideation tutorials to help students visually and materially conceptualize what they’re thinking.”

Rounding out the student teaching team is MechE doctoral student Recep Onler, who assists on the fabrication side.

Sketching ideation instruction is one of the primary functions of the class. In an ordinary class, a student will have an idea, then jump immediately to the computer to try to visualize it in a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) program. Suddenly, their designs are limited by their CAD skills, and by the parameters of the program itself. By learning how to sketch, students are free to ideate uninhibited, leading to more creative and free form development of ideas.

“Just twenty years ago, all mechanical engineering students were able to sketch—it was a fundamental skill,” Shimada says. “We’ve emphasized the importance of computational modeling, and Carnegie Mellon is at the leading edge of computational tools. But the flip side is that students have lost the basic drawing skills, and we’re starting to see the negative aspects of that.”

The semester-long class, offered in the fall, culminates in a student showcase, at which students present their final project, along with other work they’ve done over the semester that they are proud of. For the final project, students are encouraged to use any of the methods and techniques of design that they have learned. The only parameter? Build something that makes you or someone else happy.

“That’s one of Professor Shimada’s big mottos,” says Powell-Palm.

From that showcase, three students are selected for exceptional work. The winners of this fall’s showcase were: The Yanagi, a slicing knife designed by Max Queenan; Puzzlight, an assembled lamp designed by Emily Yang; and Shimamock, a hand-woven personal hammock chair designed by Kelsey Scott.

But DIY Design is only one course—taken either in a student’s senior year, or early in their graduate career. According to Powell-Palm, that’s not enough.

“A lot of kids take this class and they say ‘oh my goodness, imagine what I could have done in this other class had I known how to build things first,” he says. “I think offering a DIY equivalent course to sophomores is a great idea. I predict you’ll see a huge balloon in their productivity.”

A full rundown of the class’ final projects can be found at www.concepea.net.