The Art of Engineering Design: SE 101 Combines Analysis with Artistry
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in abbreviated form in the 2020 ISE Viewbook. While this serves as an excellent introduction to SE101, due to the constraints of the pandemic and the fact that the course evolves constantly, the exact exercises described may have changed.
SE 101: Meet the Teachers
In the heart of Florence, Italy, there stands the spectacular Florence Cathedral, which boasts the largest freestanding masonry dome in the world. The man behind the dome was Filippo Brunelleschi, an artist, architect, and engineer, who also established the rules of perspective in drawing.
“I always tell my students that 500 years ago, you couldn’t distinguish between artists and engineers. They were basically the same person,” says ISE professor James Leake. He uses Brunelleschi as a prime example of this, and ISE’s Product Design Lab even has a 3D model of Brunelleschi’s dome, which a student created a few years back.
“In engineering education, there’s a lot of emphasis on getting students to realize that engineering is not only an analytical profession,” Leake adds. “It’s also a creative profession.”
Leake spent 19 years driving this point home through SE 101, the longstanding introductory class in engineering graphics and design, which he oversaw until his retirement in 2018. He also created the Product Design Laboratory and cultivated the department’s close relationship with Autodesk, the company behind Inventor, the popular Computer Aided Design (CAD) program that his students have used over the years.
SE 101 is a hands-on design class, which features two tracks—one for civil engineers and the other for students in ISE and agricultural and biological engineering. In the ISE track, students reverse engineer real-world products and then reassemble them digitally, while the civil engineering track has students reconstructing various campus buildings digitally.
However, the real story of SE 101 is not the technology. It is a tale of two professors—Leake, who shaped the class, and Molly Hathaway Goldstein, who currently oversees both the class and the Product Design Lab. Leake estimates he taught roughly 10,000 students over the years before passing the baton to Goldstein.
Goldstein has seen the class from three different perspectives—as a student, as a teaching assistant, and now as a professor. She took SE 101 in the fall of 2000, back when she was a freshman at the University of Illinois and the class was known as GE 103. Four years later, she was a graduate student at U of I, helping to teach the course as a TA.
“That’s when it all clicked,” she says. “Seeing how I could help students learn through this class was one of the most transformational points of my life.”
The course wasn’t any different when she taught it as a TA, but she says, “I was different. I got to see what the instructor put into the class. I saw how much James Leake cared about creating assignments and exams that made sense for the students.”
Fourteen years later, in 2018, Goldstein was hired to take over teaching SE 101, only weeks after finishing her PhD from Purdue in engineering education.
“I felt like I won the lottery to be back here,” she says.
Appropriately, Goldstein bookended Leake’s teaching odyssey. She was a student in the class when Leake was only in his second year of teaching SE 101, and she came back at his retirement.
Leake’s path to teaching the course at Illinois was a long and winding road. He grew up in Florida and went to high school in Indiana before graduating from Indiana University with an art history degree in 1974. Then he went to Florida Atlantic University, where he received a second bachelor’s degree in 1980, this one in ocean engineering—a little known engineering specialty. He put this degree into practice in Washington State, where he worked until 1983 for a naval architecture firm that designed car ferries.
“I always wanted to go into the Peace Corps. So I did that from 1983 to 1986 in Tunisia, overseeing the construction of boats,” Leake continues. He also met his wife in the Peace Corps, and after their stint in Tunisia, they moved back to Seattle, where he designed crab boats and other fishing boats for the Alaska fishery.
“This was when I first started using CAD software,” he says.
Next, Leake went back to get his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington in 1993, and then he taught CAD and engineering graphics in the United Arab Emirates.
“This was still the early days of the Internet,” he says, “and I created a website about using solid modeling, which is what most CAD is based on. Instead of drawing lines, circles, and arcs, you build things up from three-dimensional elements, such as boxes and cylinders.”
Finally, after years of moving around, he was lured back to the States by the University of Illinois. Leake found a home at Illinois and has remained there ever since.
Before he came on board at Illinois, students in SE 101 (or GE 103 as it was called then) were using AutoCAD, the first CAD program for personal computers. But it was all in 2D.
“I was basically hired to bring 3D solid modeling to the college,” he says.
Leake arrived on campus in 1999, and only one year later, Autodesk began to push a new relationship with universities. Leake says he jumped at the opportunity.
“For a single fee, you could use all of their products, rather than pay separately for AutoCAD and other programs,” he says. “I really championed that, and ever since we’ve had a strong relationship with Autodesk.”
When Autodesk introduced the stand-alone solid modeling program, Inventor, it became the primary tool for SE 101 students beginning in 2001. Then, in 2005, Autodesk made it possible for students and faculty to download all of its software onto their personal computers for free. As a result of such smart moves, Autodesk emerged as one of the four major CAD companies today.
“With Autodesk, I bet on the right horse,” Leake says.
Sometime in 2001 or 2002, he says the class got its first 3D printer—among the earliest on campus. And in 2004, the Product Dissection Lab (now renamed the Product Design Lab) was launched. At that time, Leake decided to do away with SE 101’s final exam—a very popular decision. Instead, students would make a final presentation on a reverse engineering project that they had worked on in teams for the entire semester. The reverse engineering project remains the cornerstone of the ISE section of the class today.
“This is the students’ very first design class in engineering,” says Goldstein. “It’s one of the first opportunities for them to understand the design process and its dichotomy of the artistic and analytical.”
Although the primary tool in SE 101 is Autodesk Inventor and most of the work is in the digital world, the class also stresses hand drawing—a skill that once characterized all engineering classes on the U of I campus.
“If you go back to the dawn of the 20th Century, a large part of the engineering curriculum was based on different kinds of drawing classes,” Leake says. “In fact, the Department of General Engineering was originally called the Department of General Engineering Drawing.”
Over the years, he says, drawing courses were phased out. As a result, SE 101 is one of the last vestiges of hand drawing in engineering.
SE101B: The ISE Track
On the ISE side of the course, Goldstein says she splits her 150 students into teams of three to five. Student teams study a list of possible products to reverse engineer and select their top picks. Then they are assigned a product from their choices—anything from a Nerf gun or remote-control robot to a seed spreader or DaVinci clock. For Marius Juston, his team worked on a Black and Decker cordless screwdriver, while Karsen O’Keefe’s team was given an LED camping light and fan. Both Juston and O’Keefe were freshmen when they took the class during the fall of 2019.
After taking photos of the product from all angles, the teams’ first major task is to dissect the products, taking them apart piece by piece, screw by screw, until they can go no further.
“There was one part in the cordless screwdriver that we had to cut in two to access the smaller parts,” says Juston.
The groups break their products into subassemblies, and then each student is responsible for one section. O’Keefe’s job was to tackle a circular light rim, while Juston’s team distributed their parts based on skill level. Juston and another teammate had the most experience with Audodesk Inventor, so they zeroed in on the more complicated pieces. For Juston, that was the shell and trigger mechanism, which have curves that make them difficult to measure.
Students sketch and measure each part, using highly precise digital calipers. Then they begin modeling the parts on Autodesk Inventor before reassembling the product digitally, piece by piece.
“Modeling and reassembling were the most difficult aspects of the class for sure,” O’Keefe says. “There were a lot of times when I thought I had it right, but there would be something wrong, and I would have to go back and do it all again.”
Juston and O’Keefe both say the trickiest part when reassembling the product digitally is avoiding interferences—points where two digital parts don’t quite match up. After reassembling the product digitally, the teams create short animation videos, which highlight the product from all angles with dynamic cutaways that show how it works and how the individual parts move.
Finally, teams create professional portfolios, a new feature of the class since Goldstein started overseeing it. These online portfolios include everything from background information on the product to detailed images of individual parts. The online portfolios go through the entire dissection and modeling processes step by step and even include a reflection section in which students talk about ways the product can be improved.
For instance, one group working on a pair of hand shears suggested ways to change the springs to make it easier for someone with arthritis to use it. This need came to their attention because the grandmother of one of the team members struggled with arthritis.
One of the best learning experiences at the 100 level is how to work as a team, Goldstein says. “Engineers are not known necessarily for being social, but engineering and design is a really social process.”
Some teams have trouble meeting deadlines or sharing the workload evenly, but O’Keefe says their team clicked right out of the starting gate. “Working as a team was one of my favorite parts,” she says. “So was seeing all of our rendered images and our animation and doing our final presentation.”
“I’m really impressed with how the students talk about their products in their presentations,” Goldstein says. “They sound like experts.”
SE101A: The Civil Engineering Track
While ISE students tackle reverse engineering projects, the civil engineering track focuses on building design. But it wasn’t always that way, Leake says. Originally, civil engineering students were mixed in with ISE students, all of them using Autodesk Inventor. However, the civil engineering department discovered that employers wanted their students to be proficient in Building Information Modeling, or BIM.
Therefore, the split was made in 2014, and one section now has civil engineering students working with the BIM program, Autodesk Revit. Leake obtained blueprints for various campus buildings, and students use these 2D plans to create digital 3D twins of buildings on campus, including Foellinger Auditorium, Grainger Engineering Library, and ISE’s own Transportation Building. In all, student teams have recreated close to 40 different campus buildings. Their animations take you directly into the buildings and down the hallways in a virtual world.
Both sections of SE 101 give students time on the 3D printer. The ISE side of the class prints 3D models of various parts of their products, while the civil engineering students print miniature models of U of I buildings.
But whether you’re an ISE student using Autodesk Inventor or a civil engineering student using Revit, it all comes down to the analytics—and the artistry.
“Dr. Goldstein always told us that engineers have to be able to communicate through our drawings and our images,” O’Keefe says.
Leake hopes to continue to drive home the artistry of engineering by teaching a new class on the Art of Renaissance Engineering, even though technically he is retired. The coronavirus has put a hitch in these plans, but he still aims to lead a class to Florence and Siena, Italy, where the great artists, architects, and engineers of 500 years ago changed the world.
In Florence, he even plans to take them up into the dome of the cathedral— Brunelleschi’s masterwork—to see how it was constructed.
“That dome is an engineering marvel,” he says.
Goldstein was going to take a class overseas as well, but the pandemic has delayed her plans. When international travel resumes, she hopes to bring 20 students to Ecuador to work on prosthetic design with an ISE alum there. Her interest in such bioengineering research goes back to her freshman year at Illinois, when she declared it her secondary program in general engineering. For her senior design class at Illinois, she even developed a working, lactating breast that could be used to test breast pumps without always needing to bring in nursing mothers. The Medela company used her team’s device for close to a decade.
“That design project was when I felt my identity as an engineer,” she notes. In the same way, she says that after students take SE 101, “I hope they have gotten closer to being engineers and seeing the importance of teamwork.”
Leake and Goldstein also are in the midst of a collaboration, revising the textbook used by the class—Engineering Design Graphics. Leake wrote the first edition with Jacob Borgerson, one of the first graduate students to receive a PhD in ISE. But now Leake says he and Goldstein have laid out a game plan to update the book.
“When you get to the end of your career, you look for ways to pass on your legacy,” Leake says. “That is embodied for me in a person like Molly.”
Professor Molly Goldstein speaks in depth about SE 101: Civil Engineering Section.