In a recent post, I noted that structural engineering degree courses make little or no attempt to help students develop a critical attitude to design quality. They're given little if any tuition on aesthetic issues, and it's doubtful how much they really learn from design projects.
Design projects are usually artificially simplified to match them to the abilities of the students. I know from experience that these projects are difficult for academics to mark, as designs that would never see the light of day in real life may still need to be marked well if students at least show they understand key issues such as buildability. The end result is that while students often enjoy their design projects, I doubt that they actually learn much of long-term value about the design process, whether that's the interpersonal dynamics of design teams, or techniques for jump-starting creative thought.
While few in the field would see this as an opportunity to introduce a confrontational "crit" such as architects undergo, it could be an opportunity for student peers to challenge each other’s work. This would encourage them to analyse the merits of their own designs more thoroughly, and also open them to alternative ideas and options that they may not have considered. Such a process clearly needs to be facilitated in such a manner that criticism is constructive.
One question is whether they could learn more about design without actually having to do it. In professional life, there's little doubt that we learn as much from considering other people's designs as from the process of developing our own.
This approach is being included as part of a bridge engineering course at the University of Bath directed by Professor Tim Ibell. In this course students are asked to collect data on an existing bridge, critically analyse its aesthetics, carry out a simple structural assessment, and comment on how it was built and whether better alternatives were available. The aesthetic analysis is based on a set of formal considerations set out by Fritz Leonhardt in his book Brücken. The resulting papers offer a comprehensive critical review of each structure, combining both objective and quantifiable issues with matters which can only be treated subjectively.
I personally believe the focus on existing structures may give students a greater understanding of the challenges of bridge design than does the conventional student design exercise. They have to consider how design choices have been made, without being asked to make choices for which they lack sufficient knowledge and experience.
As well as improving their understanding of bridge engineering and of the design process, the course must encourage them to be more confident in forming and expressing opinions on structural engineering.
The student papers from 2007 and 2008 are available online, and cover bridges as wide-ranging as Brooklyn Bridge, the Millau Viaduct, Sunniberg Bridge, the Clyde Arc and the Menai Suspension Bridge. They generally make interesting reading - you get a real sense of the students beginning to understand structural engineering beyond the confines of the calculator, although inevitably many of the judgements presented are either mistaken or in some cases plain daft.
The value of the "case study" approach is its realism - it forces students to confront real problems of buildability, aesthetics of real structures, in a way that never works as well with the creations of their own imagination. I think it would be great if more universities would take up this idea!