Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Proposition

Rather than rely on that short little description at the top of this page, I thought I might as well chuck my proposal on here to make it clear what this is all about. Check it out below. 

But in case you dont want to read all that waffle, in short, I am developing learning resources, initially for undergraduate design degrees. These resources seek to teach students how to build electrical circuits, code microchips and design user interfaces in as quick and easy to understand ways as possible.

Ultimately, the plan is to give students the skills that allow them to quickly prototype fully working models of relatively complicated products. We're not talking about them making the next iPad here, but definitely things on par with the technology in your car or what you might encounter at the self service check-out at Sainsbury's (However I assure you, we're aiming for something that works a bit better than those darn check-outs).

Another key element of the research is utilising Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Contrary to its name, PBL is not solely about problem solving. It is a method of learning, used a lot in the medical industry, that seeks to engage students more in the taught material. It focuses on group collaboration, self motivated research and sharing of their findings. Many studies have shown that students who are engaged in PBL based exercises learn a broader knowledge of the subject, retain the information better while also gaining valuable skills in team work, researching and communication.

Now for the real thing:

To develop and evaluate an engaging learning environment, which uses Problem Based Learning (PBL), technology and software in order to educate designers in creating products that include electronic and interface design.

The aim is to develop learning environments / tools / exercises that inform designers how to quickly and efficiently create working prototypes of their designs. Many products now have some sort of electronic functionality, and many of them are increasing in complexity and require a dynamic interface to use. Also, much of our lives can now be aided, controlled and organised using devices that fit in our pockets. Now more than ever, it is in a designer’s interests to be able to know how to work with these technologies and apply them to their own products.

Student Background
Since having started studying Product Design and Technology BSc at Loughborough University, an increased understanding of electronic components, circuits and systems has been gained. It has sometimes been very challenging however, to apply this knowledge to designs in a way that would accurately reflect their intended function. Many products on the market now have functionality far beyond what is capable of a PIC microcontroller, for example. Basic knowledge of electronics and rudimentary microcontrollers are useful, however not being aware of the other resources available can be limiting.

Interaction design has also become a growing interest. The proposer’s final year project has been on systems that involve Tactile User Interfaces (TUIs). These interfaces focus on blurring the line between virtual and reality to emerge the user in their task more, and make the interface seem more natural.  The complexity of such an interface can be great as it needs to take in and process data from many inputs and still provide a seamless environment that the user can interact with.
The Arduino microcontroller platform has been selected as the basis of my project. It not only allows for quick prototyping and easy programming, but also has well supported connectivity with computers via USB, allowing it to control software, media and data transfer locally, and to the Internet. An added benefit of Arduino is the large communities of users constantly developing software and additional hardware that can communicate with the microcontroller. Systems as adaptable and compatible as this can open numerous options to designers seeking to prototype with this system.

The research consists of 2 main stages;
Designing the environments and Problem Based Learning resource’s based upon previous research performed in teaching and education.

Testing the environments and resources, and evaluating the data recorded from them to assess the performance.

Program of Work

1.     Observe the learning environment and identify key scenarios where PBL resources will be most effective.
2.     Design and develop the PBL resources to suit the identified scenarios and their environments.
3.     Implement the PBL resources in the identified scenarios and collect data from users using questionnaires, interviews, observations and analysis of user-generated work.
4.     Refine the designs of the original resources based upon the data collected from 3.
5.     Expand user test base to the wider design education community.
6.     Collect and analyse results from these broader tests and use them to further refine the resources.

Beyond serving Loughborough University in helping to create more dynamic and useful designers, this research will be of benefit to many areas, from schools through to industry and the overall economy. Schools teaching Design and Technology could utilise this knowledge and apply it to their own teaching. This will increase the potential for more advanced projects even as early as KeyStage 3, and engage young people, hopefully encouraging them to take further education or follow a career in Design or Engineering.

Universities could provide more focused learning resources that will produce graduates with efficient, multidisciplinary skills and knowledge that industry seeks.  Lastly, in the government’s 2008 report, ‘Supporting Innovation in Services’, a emphasis was put upon encouraging the development of relevant skills in information technology and the product and service design-oriented economy. This research will help achieve that aim by developing a more efficient approach to electronic and interaction-based product design.

The main objective of this research project is to develop effective learning resources that will help learners gain skills that will be most useful to them in industry. They will be able to use already developed systems and formats in order to create relatively complex electronics and interfaces in prototypes.  From the final year project, interest and understanding has been gained in this area and multidisciplinary skills have been learned that will aid no doubt support any future endeavours in design. The proposer feels he can continue this work and further the subject that will ultimately benefit other designers in their area, education and in industry.
So there you have it. My next 3 years in a nutshell.

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