March 23, 2016
“Too much homework!” “Too early in the morning!” “Too many tests!” Students are not shy to make their complaints about school known. All the way from elementary school, where kids whine about not getting enough recess time, up to their senior year of high school, where they feel the homework, tests, and college applications weighing them down, students complain about school. Even throughout college, the criticisms continue, regardless of whether students enjoy school or not. However, some of these complaints are quite justified—including one such complaint concerning the size of desks in WKU’s Thompson Complex for Science.
This semester, Dr. Gordon Smith is teaching several engineering classes in the Thompson Complex that are typically taught in the building for Engineering and Biological Sciences. Classrooms 129 and 402 contain lecture hall-type seating, only providing students with small flip-up desks attached to the chairs. According to Dr. Smith, while it may be the “finest educational seating of 1954…it is awful” for the engineering classes he teaches currently. Students struggle to learn effectively in these environments, and taking exams is particularly difficult. In order to find a solution, Dr. Smith decided to give this problem to the students and allow them to solve it themselves through a design sprint.
In the engineering department, there are six design courses, where students have between a semester and a full year to analyze a problem and solve it. Oftentimes, these are high stake problems—industry partners provide factory problems and want applicable solutions from upperclassmen. However, design sprints give younger students an opportunity to gain similar experiences. Appropriately named a design “sprint,” these projects shorten the process down to only 6-8 weeks. For this particular project, Dr. Smith asked students to come up with some sort of desk modification to improve the quality of learning in his classrooms. His specifications: the desks must be able to be added and removed by students before and after class, easily stored within the classroom, and made from common materials. Two groups of students quickly got to work, eager to complete a project that would make their own lives and the lives of others much easier.
After exploring several design options, they were put to the test at the WKU Engineering Expo. Using chocolate to entice attendees to use and evaluate their desk prototypes, the students gained feedback to help them create a final design. Many of the testers thought the desks worked well, and others gave some helpful criticism. Getting comments ranging from “desks are a little tight” to “great for napping,” the students used this feedback and created the final design. The desk modifications were built so that, when several are used in a row, they will fit together and create one long tabletop surface. Currently in production, the desks are being created for a total of $1600, which was generously provided by the dean. Choosing inexpensive methods and working in a production line fashion, student volunteers are making the desk modifications become a reality.
It is exciting for current students to experience the production of the desks, and future students will not miss the benefits of this project either. Whether they get the opportunity to use the desks or not, they will get to see the results of a hands-on engineering project carried out by Western students. One of the most important things students are learning in this project is that nothing ever goes as perfectly as pictured, but this is ok and sometimes even leads to new, better ideas. The desk modification project should be completed in time for this semester’s students to utilize the new desks for their final exams. But, the work is never done! Dr. Smith hopes to maintain a list of projects that can be completed as design sprints to help the engineering department, as well as others on campus. Next on that list? To build a stand for the desks using only the scraps from this project! A challenging and meaningful task, it will be a project perfect for engineering students who love to dive in and get their hands dirty!