Q&A: Using new tech to communicate engineering design

4/10/2024

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Teaching Assistant Professor and Product Design Lab Director Molly Hathaway Goldstein

Q&A

Using new tech to communicate engineering design

For Teaching Assistant Professor and Product Design Lab Director Molly Hathaway Goldstein, education and research are intertwined. The engineering design educator and researcher explains the struggle of design tradeoff decisions and how new technology can provide designers with the tools they need to communicate their ideas.

Interviewed by Eleanor Wyllie

How did you get interested in engineering and design?

I didn't know what engineering was until I was a junior in high school and received a mailing from another university about bioengineering and biomedical engineering. I love math and was originally interested in the medical field.

I'm from Illinois, and I actually earned my undergraduate degree in this department, which was General Engineering at the time. I had a lot of design classes, but I really got to see them put into practice with my first internship at a medical device company that made breast pumps for lactating mothers. It was so cool to see how electronics, fluid mechanics and materials all fit together to create something that would make somebody's life so much better. I was hooked — I saw the applications of design and just loved the idea of getting to be a designer. I stayed here for a master’s degree in Systems and Entrepreneurial Engineering. I was a teaching assistant for SE 101, and I loved it.

I loved seeing what made difficult concepts connect for students. I'm still really curious to explore how people learn.

You’re one of the only faculty with a Ph.D. in Engineering Education.

It was the only Ph.D. program I applied to. I found out about it when I was a TA for SE 101 and Jim Leake, the professor of the course, said: here's a brand new Ph.D. program, you should look at it, it's exactly what you're interested in. He's a mentor of mine, now retired, and we collaborated on our textbook, Engineering Design Graphics.

You’re the director of the Product Design Laboratory, which is open to all disciplines. Why is that important?

We're better, more comprehensive designers when we pull from multiple systems and look at areas outside engineering.

— Molly Goldstein

The Product Design Lab works with engineering, and we collaborate with the medical school and a lot of industrial design students and faculty. We provide design consulting expertise; we can help people sketch out what they are thinking and communicate their design ideas. 

Undergraduate students with Systems Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and Agricultural and Biological Engineering learn about product dissection in the Product Design Lab on Feb. 20, 2024. The class was led by lab director and ISE professor, Molly Hathaway Goldstein, lab assistant Lillian Mini (B.S. '24, IE) and teaching assistant Vanessa Blas (M.S.,SE).
Photo Credit: Heather Coit/Grainger Engineering
Undergraduate students with Systems Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Aerospace Engineering and Agricultural and Biological Engineering learn about product dissection in the Product Design Lab on Feb. 20, 2024. The class was led by lab director and ISE professor, Molly Hathaway Goldstein, lab assistant Lillian Mini (B.S. '24, IE) and teaching assistant Vanessa Blas (M.S.,SE).

You encourage hand drawing, but you use computer aided design (CAD) and other cutting-edge techniques as well.

Hand sketching is difficult in some ways, but like so many other things, the more you practice, the better you get. There's a lot of evidence in educational literature that as students draw something, they're changing pathways in their brain and getting better at visualization.

From the perspective of being able to communicate design ideas, CAD is wonderful. There's pros and cons to CAD versus hand sketching, and it's one of our jobs to make sure students can communicate their design ideas in multiple ways.

How have technology advances impacted you?

Technology does change, and one of my grants through the National Science Foundation looks at generative design, advancements in design technology and generative AI. We've been investigating ways students use generative design and what that's going to mean for design in engineering.

A lot of my research focuses on design tradeoff decisions. It's really difficult for beginning designers to articulate what tradeoffs they're making. They may just focus on a pro of their chosen solution, or a negative reason why they did not select an option. Really good designers can understand the balance and understand (and articulate) why they are making decisions.

Generative design presents some of the same challenges: in generative design, the computer presents a large range of solutions, but trying to figure out which one is good, and why, is difficult. There's a fear that generative design may replace designers. Absolutely not. Designers who can articulate their design decisions will be far ahead and able to use this technology in more meaningful ways.

You’ve started working with generative design in your teaching.

I'm proud of that, because it's really new within software, and very few programs across the United States include this in their undergraduate classes, let alone at the 100 level. It's one way that the University of Illinois keeps leading the way — our peers see us doing this in the classroom.

It's important for me that our students can see changes in technology, talk about it with prospective employers and challenge their design assumptions to become better designers.

— Molly Goldstein

Can you talk more about your teaching methods and philosophy?

I worked in industry before my Ph.D., and I bring a lot of my experience from industry. Our students learn really specific skills, but it's the culmination of all of them that makes our students good in industry and academia. One of those areas is collaboration. In industry, they're working shoulder to shoulder with other people. It's really important to me to provide students with those opportunities and scaffold collaboration by giving them small opportunities to get better, give each other feedback, reflect on their experiences. Collaboration is really hard to do and hard to teach.

I teach a small 400 level class with students from every engineering discipline and industrial design. The industrial designers and engineers communicate differently. Typically, the teams that have a mix of industrial design and engineering have some of the best overall projects.

Do you have a memorable class you've taught?

I teach an introductory design course, SE 101, every semester, for product design and for building design. I love interacting with students at the very beginning of their careers and helping them see that they are creative and can do lots of different things. It’s a large class, but it's rewarding to get to work with so many people.

The 400-level class is a very small group of students who elected to take SE 402: Comp-Aided Product Realization. We use a lot of different technology with the goal of creating a product that makes somebody's life better. It was drawn from my experience at my first internship. It’s a very rewarding experience to interact with a small group of students who really want to be there and learn. In small classes, I can look at their design process, not just their product, so I can see them develop as designers. I just love that.

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?

Stay curious. The more we can observe, be reflective and curious about the world, the more connections we see, and the more impact we can have.

Molly Goldstein, left, an Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering teaching professor, mingles with Marcia Pool, a Bioengineering teaching professor and AE3 Education Innovation Fellow, at the Celebration of Teaching event where Goldstein graduated from the Collins Scholars program.
Photo Credit: Heather Coit
Molly Goldstein, left, an Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering teaching professor, mingles with Marcia Pool, a Bioengineering teaching professor and AE3 Education Innovation Fellow, at the Celebration of Teaching event where Goldstein graduated from the Collins Scholars program.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that the next generation of engineers and designers are facing at the moment?

The more things change, the more they stay the same. From my research, what’s really interesting is beginning designers have a hard time making tradeoffs. They did 20 years ago, and they still do, compared to those who’ve been designing for a while. Beginning designers tend to jump to a solution right away, before understanding the problem. Beginning designers tend to not want to iterate or make changes — they want to stay with their first idea. Even as things change, advancing design behaviors is difficult. That’s exciting, because we can keep learning. Even as technology changes, we can still be advancing how we’re educating designers.



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This story was published April 10, 2024.