Reshaping engineering education at Purdue

Design engineering is transforming manufacturing at a rapid pace, and Computer Graphics Technology Professor Nathan Hartman sees technology and engineering students and departments like his at Purdue University on the edge of a fundamental shift. We talked to him recently to understand how new technologies like 3D printing are changing the curricula for the next generation of engineers.


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“For a long time, people were interested in 3D technologies for visualization purposes,” says Hartman, the Associate Department head of Purdue’s computer graphic technology program. But the next opportunity he feels is more about the process of getting students to understand how to go from the digital representation to physical. He elaborates by saying,

If you go back in time, people who were designing objects had worked their way up through a production environment. When we formalized the process into degree programs, the process became more mathematically driven.

The issue, Professor Hartman explains, is that “as programs developed, many students who were training for design didn’t have the appreciation of making something.”

He’s not speaking strictly from a historical or academic perspective; he’s held manufacturing positions at Caterpillar, Fairfield Manufacturing, and Rand Worldwide. Further, the sustainability of manufacturing is something he understands and cares deeply about as the co-executive Director of IN-MaC, Indiana’s Next Generation Manufacturing Competitiveness Center.

An emphasis on making things

Students in Professor Hartman’s program at Purdue where he’s taught for 14 years are expected to understand the process of making, not simply designing. And over time, he’s seen more and more students arrive with that base digital technology knowledge he’s looking for, “a sizable percentage of incoming students have some CAD and visualization understanding,” he says.

The BoilerMAKER lab is a place where students can go to make their virtual designs real. This lab is available to all Purdue University students and teams.

“But they’re somewhat less experienced on the making end of it,” he adds. This is likely the result of fewer and fewer junior high and high schools offering hands-on classes, like woodworking, metal shop, auto mechanics or any of the construction trades.

Yet he finds that the students who choose this career path share the same preferences and abilities with engineering and design students from generations ago, “they like to work with their hands, they have spatial awareness, and are able to visualize. They understand math and dimensional relationships.”

He says that digital manufacturing allows “easy, quick validation of what is in their minds, helping to reinforce this learning modality of hands-on versus auditory learning only.”

Professor Hartman stresses that students don’t need complex hardware to get their feet wet. He prefers desktop equipment and inexpensive materials.

More than anything [the accessibility of additive technologies] allows us to be more creative, more iterative. We can be a little more open to new scenarios because making parts this way, using plastic and wax, is not resource intensive.

Teaching process, not a specific technology

And what is Professor Hartman’s goal when sending students out into the world?

My aim is to help students understand 3D modeling, not so much to know a specific type or brand of CAD tool. At Purdue, we have many types of CAD tools and software, but I want students to be competent with a variety so they understand the process of taking a thought, developing it in the digital space and then making it.

That’s why he favors desktop machines and creating simple ABS plastic parts versus more complex equipment. The skill is the same and that’s what he’s there to teach.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-29-50-amStudent and teacher working hand in hand

3D modeling and printing makes it possible to collaborate on assignments in real time, in the digital world and real world simultaneously. This is a departure from the time when Professor Hartman did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Purdue. “It’s changed the way we do things, not an evolution of individuals, but of the profession. At Purdue’s Polytechnic Institute, we’re changing from a talking head model to an interactive, hands-on one. We can apply more immediate feedback.”

Hartman and his colleagues can gauge students’ progress through in-class assignments that connect to the lives they’re living now. For instance, a colleague recently assigned a project to create a fixture for in-car mobile phone use.

He explains that the inspiration was taken right from daily life, “The idea is that the map program on your phone has become o effective, no one uses an installed GPS device anymore. But with hand free laws, you need something to hold the phone so it’s visible and useable.”

The design brief was purposely open-ended, with just a few criteria: ability to hold a minimum weight, maximum amount of plastic to be used, device-family specifics, etc.

The students loved the assignment because it was something tangible, “When the renderings were done, we did a more artistic studio critique about who best captured the spirit of the project,” Professor Hartman said.

Looking forward

We wanted to get his take on the future of programs like his, and if he sees even more integration with 3D modeling and printing. The answer was not an easy one, he says. So many things affect how programs are structured – budget, faculty knowledge, accreditation, and at public schools and universities,

So many things affect how programs are structured – budget, faculty knowledge, accreditation, and at public schools and universities, even state legislature has an impact on curriculum for credit hours.

There is one thing that’s certain he says,

The level of literacy is increasing, and it will become an expectation.

He sees a natural balance coming into play, however, as the accessibility of good quality equipment continues to increase, makes it easier for young people to gain skills and knowledge as hobbyists.


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  • phil scott

    A polytechnic degree is the most valuable, however adding in a few years with the actual tools, wrenches, test instruments doing repairs on small and very large scale HVAC systems has paid off for me countless times as I was brought in to remediate work done by those without a hands on background

    Phil Scott, ME