• Students are less interested in changing or destroying the boundaries of a particular discipline; they want to find ways to work more collaboratively, based on a foundation of mutual respect.

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SmartSurfaces: A Multidisciplinary, Hands-on Think Tank

  • March 13, 2012
  • By a2ru      
“SmartSurfaces: A Multidisciplinary, Hands-on Think-Tank”


SmartSurfaces: A Multidisciplinary, Hands-on Think-Tank’ is a 3 credit, cross-disciplinary studio course that is team taught by professors from three different University of Michigan units (John Marshall, School of Art & Design; Max Shtein, Materials Science & Engineering; and Karl Daubmann, Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning). The course has been offered three times (Fall 2009, 2010 and 2011).

Twenty-four students are divided into four teams of six: each team consists of two students from Art & Design, two from Materials Science & Engineering, and two from Architecture students. The twenty-four students and three professors meet once a week for six hours, and the student teams meet outside of class to work on their projects. The teams are tasked with building physical systems and structural surfaces that have the capability to adapt to informational and environmental conditions.

For the first phase of the course, participants focus on problem and constraint definition, structured brainstorming, and skill building. The second phase of the course involves the production of fully realized funded projects. Visiting lecturers, specialists, site visits and relevant stakeholder organizations are enlisted to expand the scope of the course. There are weekly assignments, specifying due dates, required documentation and deliverables.

For the first six weeks, the teams build specific skills: micro-controller programming, parametric 3D modeling, digital fabrication, and cross-disciplinary collaboration. During the remaining part of the semester the teams focus on the production of a fully realized project as an application of the knowledge gained in Phase 1, relying on cross-disciplinary, collective effort to carry out the project. Each team is required to design, build, program and test an ‘X-SmartSurface’ where “X” is a changing modifier. Previously, “X” = “Heliotropic” (Fall 2009), “Biomimetic” (Fall 2010) and “PowerHouse” (Fall 2011). All participants (including the professors) have to consider what constitutes a “surface,” what might make one “smart,” and determine the appropriate tools, resources and knowledge necessary for building.

One of the most interesting aspects of the course is witnessing the students become conscious of the disciplinary preconceptions that they have been trained to have. Many students are surprised to discover that they actually learn more about their own discipline through this course – in their regular courses the fundamental tenets of their discipline remain unquestioned or ignored. Many students have changed their senior theses or their choice of a graduate program because of the experiences they had on this course. The number of superlatives used in the evaluations of the course is striking – these examples are fairly typical:

“This was by far the best course I have ever taken at the University. The amount of work required for the class is ridiculous, but it is work put in voluntarily because of the passion we have for our projects. I’ve learned so much from this class, and it will likely affect my career.”

“This class teaches on a level that surpasses the prototypical American education system. What I got out of this class affected me at a core level to the point that it greatly influenced my life goals.”

(Statements from ‘SmartSurfaces’ students collected by the University of Michigan Office of Evaluations & Examinations).