must we bury the Renaissance Person?

Conventional wisdom has it that today the Renaissance person is no longer possible, because of the sheer volume of knowledge needed to master any single discipline.  Instead, we have the “Renaissance Team”, in which experts in each discipline work closely together. And so we have Bill Moggeridge’s “T-shaped people” – individuals who are experts in one domain (the vertical stroke of the T) and yet able to communicate with their expert peers in other domains (the horizontal stroke of the T).

The Renaissance Team idea has much to recommend it. For one thing, it’s not disruptive.  We can stick with our traditional form of higher education that focuses on a single discipline.  We merely teach collaboration to the single-domain experts (T-shaped people), so they can collaborate effectively with their T-shaped person peers.  It suits management, because capabilities are conveniently quantized: if one T-shaped person isn’t performing on the team, another one with the same domain expertise can be found to replace him.  It’s also an easy idea to understand.  Everyone already knows what it means to be an expert in their discipline; the Renaissance Team idea just emphasizes that people need to work together.

Design Thinking in Engineering Education

Recently, “design thinking” has achieved currency in higher education circles. I recently attended an NSF-supported workshop on graduate education in engineering design.  Engineers understand that design is an important skill, and after fifty years in which analysis has beat out synthesis for space in the curriculum, design is back.  It began some years ago.  The first moves were the freshman course introducing design through engaging engineering exercises such as the “emergency egg launch” (students work in teams to design a device that can throw an egg 20 meters without breaking it), and the senior capstone class (students work in teams to solve a design challenge in their discipline, usually for a real client).  These courses made their way into undergraduate curricula over the past two decades in response to the realization that engineering education was failing to teach design. Now there is a cry for more.

The goal of this new graduate education is to produce engineers who can design. One proposed approach (let’s call it the “domain first” approach ) would take graduates of a traditional four-year engineering program, and emphasize design in their Master (or PhD) education.  The domain-first approach conserves the traditional values of the domain. If we dilute the undergraduate curriculum by substituting a design course for a core discipline course, we risk producing dilettantes rather than domain experts.  And anyone who has tried to meddle with a core disciplinary curriculum knows the difficulty of removing anything.

The domain-first approach graduates professional master students who have all the knowledge and skills of the modern engineer, to which we add the magic ingredient of “design thinking”.   So, Master students might study design methods (e.g.,  brainstorming, user-needs analysis, requirements specification, and so on).  They might take a literature review course,  (e.g.,  Simon’s seminal article “Science of Design,” Rittel and Webber’s “Wicked Problems” article, various pieces by Nigel Cross).   And perhaps they take a project course in which students work in teams to address a real world design challenge posed by a corporate sponsor or a humanitarian need – much like the senior capstone course mentioned above.

Three year (graduate) design education

Yet it is possible to teach “design thinking” in three years.   Schools of Architecture take into their professional Master programs students who have completed undergraduate degrees in non-design disciplines—history, mathematics, Italian. They teach architectural design to non-designers in three years and produce practicing architects.

This model contradicts the “domain-first approach”.  It suggests, that to become an effective engineering designer one may not need to take a four-year undergraduate engineering degree before going on to learn “design thinking”.  If a French major can enroll in a 3-year professional architecture degree program to learn design, could she also become a engineer in a similarly structured engineering design program? Engineers will surely dispute this, on the principle that four years of undergraduate engineering education provide indispensable core knowledge.  Yet, is engineering more knowledge intense than architecture?  If architects can do it, why not engineers?

Yet a professional Master degree in architecture is quite different than today’s Master degrees in engineering. The three-year architecture program focuses on design—studio is the heart and soul of professional architecture education. All else exists to support the studio education. Studio is king: Architectural history, structural engineering, or digital media are all “support” courses. For engineering to successfully apply the model from architecture, design studio—or something close to it—would have to be the central activity of a three-year education.  This is easier said than done: because the professional norms and values in engineering are not focused on design the way they are in architecture.

I have argued so far that if we want to educate “design thinking” engineers, professional architectural education with the studio at its core, offers a model.  This model has been explained and discussed by others, notably in Donald Schön’s book The Design Studio, and to some extent also in Educating the Reflective Practitioner. The design studio—for all its virtues—has also some disadvantages of which those who seek to adopt it should beware.  Most obviously, the studio model is based around solo performance.  Although in some advanced studios students work in groups or teams, they mostly learn to design alone. Designing is a skill that one must first master individually—only after one has the basics does it makes sense to work as a member of a team.  Imagine, by analogy, that we started to learn a skill like reading or arithmetic through group project-based learning.  Learning the skills of design is similar—first master the skills alone; later they can be applied in teamwork.

Another disadvantage is that design studio is a costly enterprise— student-instructor ratios are high (architecture studios in North America cap at 1:15 with a skilled teaching assistant, and 1:12 is considered a more reasonable ratio.)  Studio courses typically make up 12 contact hours each week, and the instructor spends much of that time meeting one-on-one with students in “desk critique” sessions.  The studio also demands dedicated space for each student to set up a personal work area for the entire term.  Because these studio courses are demanding of faculty time and energy, instructors are not expected to meet the expectations—fundamental in the sciences, engineering, and humanities—of a research career.  In many instances, studios are taught by adjunct faculty members who maintain a professional practice outside the university.

Must we really bury the Renaissance person?  I think not.