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Getting Architects and Engineers to Communicate through Course Redesign

Have you ever wondered how you could design your course to get students from different disciplines working together to solve complex, real-world problems? Professor Salmaan (Sal) Craig wondered and ended up learning about and then implementing a teaching strategy that did just that!

Sal teaches a course called Energy, Environment and Building (ARCH 377) in McGill University’s Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture (in the Faculty of Engineering). It’s a required course for third-year undergraduate students doing a B. Sc. in Architecture. Between 65 and 70 students take the course, with around 50 being the Architecture cohort (a portion of whom are exchange students from other Architecture schools) and the balance being students studying other areas of Engineering. While the course addresses content required in terms of accreditation for building science in an Architecture degree, Sal has designed his course to empower the students to do something about climate change when they practice architecture. As Sal explained to me, “The course goes beyond the accreditation in the sense that it gives a picture of how the construction industry reconfigures the earth and the major impacts on the environment and climate change. It gives an idea of what needs to be done if the construction industry is going to change itself to contribute towards meeting global emission reduction targets.”

I met Sal in May 2019 when he took part in TLS’ Course (re)Design Workshop (CDW), which I co-facilitate. I asked him what had motivated him to work on redesigning his course. He had two primary reasons. First, he wanted to improve students’ engagement with the course content. He explained that “one of the challenges with Architecture programmes is that most students are focused on design studio portions, which take up the majority of their time and, often, they don’t take their parallel technical courses seriously.” Second, he wanted to get Architecture and Engineering students working together. Sal wanted to “challenge the design culture where architects and engineers don’t and can’t really speak to one another.” It became increasingly clear to him that “a culture where architects and engineers work together starts at university and crystalizes in practice.” So, after one year teaching the course in a lecture-based format that did not afford students deep engagement or much interaction between the two different disciplines, Sal was seeking a better way.

A dovetailing of a couple of important ideas inspired Sal’s course redesign. He told me: “At the CDW, I learned that assignments and learning objectives really matter. This understanding helped me rethink my course design. And then I attended a Team Based Learning (TBL) workshop with Peter Ostafichuk and it all clicked: this is how I can redesign the course so that architects can develop their hard design skills, and engineers can develop their soft design skills, figuring things out together with a common purpose—how to respond to climate change. After all, this is the Greta Thunberg generation—they have been taught climate science throughout high school and expect to learn what they can do about it at university.”

TBL is a pedagogical approach that calls for students to do out-of-class preparation, in-class readiness assurance testing (RAT), and application exercises. (Read more.)

“The readiness assurance tests were an excellent way of keeping us on track, and ensuring that we understood the theory before beginning the assignments”


-Course evaluation comment, Fall 2019

The redesigned course ran in Fall 2019. It included more hands-on work than the previous lecture-based format. Sal explained, “Whereas a typical course on this topic would give students a survey of mechanical systems and sustainable design approaches, I gave them that but also introduced to students some pretty advanced fluid dynamics and heat transfer theory so that they could understand how to naturally condition buildings. And I did that in a way that was hands-on, with physical models. I wanted students to have a method that they could use to get intuitive knowledge about how these principles work and be able to design them as part of an interdisciplinary team, and be able to share that knowledge and support joined-up thinking amongst the different members.”

See a brief video of Sal’s Fall 2019 students engaged in TBL.

I caught up with Sal at the end of the course to find out how it had gone. To what extent had he succeeded in achieving his goals with the course redesign? How had students reacted to the course design? On both counts, Sal stated unequivocally that the course had been a success: “I was really nervous at the beginning. I felt underprepared, and I was expecting pushback from the students in terms of, well, all the things that the TBL texts warn of—you know, some students saying that this isn’t teaching and asking why they should prepare for class beforehand or do problems with teams. But I was taken aback by how enthusiastic the students generally were and how after each of the three TBL sessions, a handful of students came up to me to express how exciting and exhilarating they found it. They were working in teams and there was a general, I’d say, collective momentum around the class; everybody saw that everybody was doing this. And the quality of the assignments was beyond my expectations, as well. There were no bad assignments. Everyone was hitting the learning outcomes. I have students’ first two assignments from last year without TBL and it’s easy to see that the learning was deeper this time around.”

“… introductions to each different modules putting things in context as well as small tests (to push students to do their readings) before application exercise trials in class, and then in groups as assignments. Well done new way of teaching.”

-Course evaluation comment, Fall 2019

Inspired and energized by the success of the redesign, Sal will be teaching the course again next fall and already has enhancements in mind. He hopes to get a larger classroom so that more Engineering students can enroll: “I’d like to teach in a larger room so that I can increase the number of engineers who attend, to get a more even spread of Architecture and Engineering students—get more of the interdisciplinary aspect, which I think is important for promoting that culture change. Also, it would give the Engineering students more of an opportunity to do design. I don’t think these students get much opportunity to develop their powers of conceptualization in open, realistic design scenarios.” In addition, he plans to go more deeply into TBL by increasing the number of TBL sessions: “I chose three because that was just my mental capacity. TBL was new for me. It worked well, but now I can see how it is possible to expand to five or six sessions because I can be more ambitious with the content.” Additional TBL sessions can permit greater depth and engagement with the material. Finally, he plans to introduce peer review—which is another strategy for enhancing communication among students.

Trying out new instructional strategies can be nerve-wracking for an instructor. I asked Sal what advice he could offer to colleagues who might be considering implementing TBL. He said: “Trust in the method and set out what you are going to do humbly at the beginning; explain to the students that this is an experiment. I explained to the students that I’m an expert in the content but not in this method of pedagogy. And I think they really bought into that. I explained the reasons for doing it, and that helped. So that mixture of trusting the method and then being open enough to just saying that we are experimenting, ‘so please help me with my experiment’.”

Addressing complex, real world problems, like climate change, requires input from people in a variety of fields. Designing university courses so that they foster a culture of interprofessional communication has the potential for making our real world a better place.  

How do you get students from different disciplines to work together to solve complex problems?

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