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PhD Thesis Defense — Kate Stephenson: "Skills, Non Traditional Demographic: Rethinking Novice Digital Design Education for Clinicians and other Professionals outside of Engineering"

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October 3, 2016 - 9:30am to 10:30am
ME Thermosciences Building 520, Room 131


While the fundamentals of design education have changed little over the last 30 years, the tools used in the trade, both by industrial designers and mechanical engineers, have undergone a rapid transformation. New developments in Computer Aided Design (CAD) software continue to add functionality, flexibility, and accessibility each year. Work that required a powerful workstation in the 1990’s was performed on laptops in the 2000’s. Today, that work is being completed on tablet computers and smart phones. A similar change has occurred in the way physical designs are prototyped, with the commercialization of consumer grade additive manufacturing (commonly referred to as 3D Printing) machines and the creation of a growing 3D printing service market.

A great amount of attention has been given to the technology that has enabled these changes, and while there has been significant speculation on how the expanded user base might take advantage of it, there have been few formal studies of how novice users, especially those outside of the professions traditionally associated with the technology, can learn and implement these tools.

One particular demographic that stands to benefit from rethinking this technical curriculum is professionals currently working in clinical medicine. Using 3D printing to produce customized medical products is one of the most heavily publicized uses of the technology. 3D printing and low cost CAD software also gives clinicians the opportunity to design and prototype new medical innovations without the capital equipment costs and design consultant fees that create a high barrier-to-entry in the field. However, the skills, time resources and career priorities of this demographic are significantly different from both engineering students and professionals.

Access to CAD and a 3D printer is not enough to enable a user with an idea to realize it, the users must also be taught the uses and limitations of the technologies for them to use them effectively. The existing educational research in this field was performed primarily on engineering college students. Because the technology has only been accessible to non-engineering professionals in the last few years, it is unknown if the existing educational methods are acceptable for the wider demographic, or if they can be improved upon. This knowledge gap leads to the following question:

  1. How do traditional students (engineering college students) and non-traditional students learn digital design tools?
  2. How is a student’s perceived ability to learn digital tools affected by their professional identity and confidence in other design skills?
  3. What unique challenges do teachers face in educating non-traditional students in digital tool use?

To answer these questions, three independent case studies were conducted in three different learning environments: a traditional mechanical drawing/CAD class taught to engineering college students, a new CAD and 3D printing class taught to a mixed group of undergraduate and graduate college students, and a CAD and 3D printing workshop taught to a group of practicing nurses. These case studies where then used to build an educational framework. The framework was then analyzed and reviewed in the context of a series of interviews with teaching professionals from a variety of academic and private institutions.

The purpose of this education framework is to act as a guide for further curriculum development for this rapidly growing student demographic.


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