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Measuring Group Work in a Fabrication Setting—Bruce Johnson (2012)

A project from ARCH 409Overview

A professor from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning implements scaffolding in his studio class in order to streamline and reinvigorate successful team-based work.

Background

Architecture 409 is a hands-on fabrication-based design studio that is mandatory for all students in the Master of Architecture 1 track of the School of Architecture, Design and Planning. ARCH 409 provides a unique opportunity for students to fabricate from and experiment with real materials at full scale. Because students are working with real materials (wood, plastic, steel, aluminum, etc.), there is a need to use power tools in a shop environment. There is also a need to work in teams that range in size from small groups of three or four to those that encompass the entire studio. It is the goal of the curriculum that students become competent in fabrication that embraces the myriad of materials available to the designer/architect; thus, in this course each student has the opportunity to explore these materials while following the requirements set by a particular assembly method. After taking ARCH 409, students will be required to integrate specific materials and techniques of their assembly in a nine-hour course entitled Architecture 609, Comprehensive Design Studio.

Implementation

My goal for the semester was to find a way to better assess the diverse incoming skill sets and the individual performance of students doing group work for the ARCH 409 studio. My plan was to develop a series of surveys (both a beginning and an end of semester survey) and a series of performance evaluation rubrics. The beginning survey was meant as a way to identify key skill sets that could be utilized over the semester and to help distribute the more skilled and less skilled students into initial groups for the first project. I subsequently divided the course into two main sections: the first section to understand and explore a specific material and joint system along with an overarching structural approach (the space frame); the second section further subdivided the studio, allowing individual strengths to emerge.

Student Work

The results of the initial project helped display in equal measure the strengths, weaknesses, and potentials for the materials, the structural system students were working with, and an overall leveling of the learning curve as students gained some familiarity with the tools. The results of their evaluations were in many ways predictable. By and large, students were extremely proud of their own work and the work done by their team. Often in the ARCH 409 studio setting, a single larger fabrication project is chosen, and students are assigned tasks that work to their strengths. This typically privileges the end product, often short-changing the depth of the experience for the students. The value in the approach this semester was that the students were able to learn not only from their peers about the tools and materials they explored, but also about how the actual assignment, the site and program, dramatically altered each group’s utilization of the structure. Because of the size of the groups, students were also able to work outside their comfort zone, gaining familiarity with a broad range of tools, but still playing to their strengths. With smaller groups, it was also easier to assess individual contributions, and it was more difficult for any individual to hide behind his/her peers.

Reflections

Choosing to focus on the structural system for the semester was a very good change to the studio, because it focused the initial design area, and it allowed students to understand the system first and then see how it could be affected by tectonic and material decisions, as well as programmatic and site forces. Dividing into smaller groups with radically different programs and sites helped students see the range of designs they could produce with the structural system they were employing. This also kept the studio from becoming a shop class, focusing on skill sets. The initial project also helped identify the skills students had and how they could work together. The evaluations helped reinforce what could be seen in the studio.


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a project from ARCH 409Background

Architecture 409, Architectural Design IV, is a hands-on fabrication-based design studio that is mandatory for all students in the Master of Architecture 1 track in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning. There are three different tracks students can follow for the master’s in architecture; of these the March 1 track, a five-year terminal degree program, is the largest group. Students typically have the opportunity to choose between a four-year bachelor’s degree plus a two-year master’s, or a five-year master’s with no bachelor’s.

ARCH 409 provides a unique opportunity for students to fabricate from and experiment with real materials at full scale. Because students are working with real materials (wood, plastic, steel, aluminum, etc.), there is the need to use power tools in a shop environment. There is also a need to work in teams that range in size from small groups of three or four to those that encompass the entire studio. Teamwork requires that students work together safely and that they consider the actions they take relative to the physical site conditions of either the shop environment or that of a real site. The materials used have a weight that students do not often understand. Wind and other factors make working with physical materials a challenge, and they also provide students with strong empathy for those in the construction and fabrication industries once students have wrestled with lifting a 200-pound beam over their heads on a windy day, for example.

Since it is the goal of the curriculum that students become competent in fabrication that embraces the myriad of materials available to the designer/architect, it is imperative that each student has the opportunity to explore these materials while following the requirements set by a particular assembly method. On the larger projects many students are assigned tasks that contribute to the overall project, but often times these tasks are not tied to the idea of materials and their application. After taking ARCH 409, students will be required to integrate specific materials and techniques of their assembly in a nine-hour course entitled Architecture 609, Comprehensive Design Studio. This is the capstone of the core curriculum of the School of Architecture, and many students still struggle to integrate material systems with a basic architectural thesis as mediated by a real structural system. That said, the ARCH 409 studios that I have run in the past have moved from larger all-studio projects (14 students) to smaller and smaller (three to four students) group projects in an attempt to more evenly distribute learning skill sets. This has been successful, and there have been fewer concerns from students about a balanced workload among team members. Typically, these smaller groups are equipped to police themselves and to draw on one another’s strengths. ARCH 409 often relies on group projects in order to economize both material and time expenditures for students. However, there is the danger that students get less from the class by working on these large group projects due to a compressed schedule, and many times a few students will dominate these projects and leave the others with more trivial tasks. By using scaffolding in my assignment design, it is my intent to successfully avoid these pitfalls.


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students working on a design projectImplementation

My goal for the semester was to find a way to better assess the diverse incoming skill sets and the individual performance of students doing group work for the ARCH 409 studio. My plan was to develop a series of surveys (both a beginning and an end of semester survey) and a series of performance evaluation rubrics (one that I used for the evaluation of individual student work and another for group work—additionally I would modify these for student self/group evaluations) with regard to the following specific skill sets:

  • Prior/current use of tools and equipment/shop tools
  • Prior/current work with a team in a construction related field, with particular attention paid towards prior interaction with moving heavy objects in space
  • Prior/current work with a team in an office setting, with particular attention paid towards prior interaction with group dynamics
  • Prior/current role as a leader/job captain
  • Prior/current role as designer
  • Prior/current fabrication and craft/efficiency with regard to material and assembly types
  • Prior/current structural articulation and integration
  • Prior/current adherence to original design intention
  • The ability to teach/monitor group members for safety/quality
  • The ability to discover and take advantage of the unique opportunities found in the assembly/fabrication process

I divided the course into two main sections: the first section to understand and explore a specific material and joint system along with an overarching structural approach (the space frame); the second section further subdivided the studio, allowing individual strengths to emerge. For the first week, I developed a lengthy survey (pdf) that students were required to take, to give me an idea of what tools they were familiar with and what their previous experience was. The survey was meant as a way to identify key skill sets that could be utilized over the semester and to help distribute the more skilled and less skilled students into initial groups for the first project.

I introduced the basic framework for the studio, dividing students into two larger groups and setting up a series of scaffolded assignments, which are linked below. For their first project I had them explore certain structural systems using Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) in one group and wood in the other. These groups were created based on the initial survey information and facts gleaned from the students in the first week. I designed the first project not only as a test for the materials themselves, but also to see how students responded to each other in their groups, evaluating the best approach to the final project. At the end of the first project, students were asked to evaluate their own group as well as the other group, after observing it, using a rubric. Students were also asked to provide an explanation for each assessment.

I proceeded to shuffle students into smaller teams based on their interactions, their technical strengths, the nature of each of the three final projects’ requirements (pdf), and students’ own wishes. The structural system employed dictated what the three projects would be, but the nature of each project was radically different. The first project required students to design a backyard canopy structure without a foundation and build a full-scale prototype that could be placed in a variety of different site conditions. The second project (pdf) was in coordination with a real client for a potential shade structure that could be built in Haiti for a small birthing center’s waiting area. In this case, students were required to navigate the complexities of a real world setting, providing options to the client by showing different design solutions and materials, creating a set of drawings and renderings that could be communicated to an audience outside of architecture, and building a 3/4-scale prototype of the chosen option. The third project built on an emergency shelter prototype from a previous ARCH 409 studio I had taught, using the structural system the studio, as a whole, grappled with. Students in this group built a full-scale mockup of a portion of the overall prototype. The programmatic requirements were more complex, but the studio was advancing the initial design already drawn up, optimizing the structural system and rethinking the site strategy. At the end of the final project, students were again asked to assess their own group’s and the other groups’ work using a rubric and providing an explanation for each assessment.


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a project from ARCH 409Student Work

The main dilemma with group work is that it is difficult to evaluate individual progress in relation to the whole group. Part of the purpose of group work, especially in a studio setting, is to enable students to learn to work collaboratively, supporting and teaching each other, similar to a real work setting in architecture. The scale of the projects in the ARCH 409 studio within the architecture curriculum can be prohibitive for individual work—students simply do not have the time to individually tackle full-scale fabrication and design within the space of 16 weeks.

The initial project was intended to allow students to gain a better understanding of the tools and materials they would be working with, along with the overarching design approach for the semester. It was also intended to provide an environment where the students and I could begin to get to know each other, iron out differences, strengths, weaknesses, and skills. The initial survey provided some level of accountability for the students to illustrate their skills on paper, and certainly clearly identified the extreme variation in the level of skills the students came into studio with; unfortunately, it also provided a means by which the students could exaggerate their own prowess. Discussion with students quickly clarified the difference between students who said they knew how to use a table-saw because they had taken the shop training course, and those who had had a summer working on a construction crew, helping frame a house, for example.

The results of the initial project helped display in equal measure the strengths, weaknesses, potentials for the materials, the structural system students were working with, and an overall leveling of the learning curve as students gained some familiarity with the tools. The results of their evaluations were in many ways predictable. By and large, students were extremely proud of their own work and the work done by their team. Their perceived average grade was almost a full letter grade higher than the opposing group. Individually, however, there were only three students on each team who evaluated the opposing team with that extreme of a disparity. The comments and explanations for the grades were, I believe, a useful exercise for the students to begin to articulate and reflect on what is typically a first hand and visceral experience in studio. However, as with the initial survey, observations, and individual/group discussions in class, the project revealed more about an individual’s progress or struggles than the evaluation was capable of doing.

The results of the third project also illustrated a great deal of potential, where the strengths and weaknesses were equally valuable to the studio learning. One of the great strengths of the studio this semester was that by subdividing the class into smaller groups to tackle diverse projects (but united in their structural system), the students learned an enormous amount through the struggles and achievements of their peers. Often in the ARCH 409 studio setting, a single larger fabrication project is chosen, and students are assigned tasks that work to their strengths. This typically privileges the end product, often short-changing the depth of the experience for the students. From what I observed, the value in the approach this semester was that the students were able to learn not only from their peers about the tools and materials they explored, but also about how the actual assignment, the site and program, dramatically altered each group’s utilization of the structure. Because of the size of the groups, students were also able to work outside their comfort zone, gaining familiarity with a broad range of tools, but still playing to their strengths. With smaller groups, it was also easier to assess individual contributions, and it was more difficult for any individual to hide behind his/her peers. The results of their final evaluations also reflected their familiarity with the struggles and achievements of the group, as well as their capacity to speak to each team’s ability to work as a team. In the final evaluation, every student could critique all three projects vigorously and assess how they approached basic safety and teamwork. Two of the three groups were still given to grading their own work higher than their colleagues, but the highest disparity was only half a letter grade. The third group actually graded their own project down from their peers.


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Professor Johnson

Bruce Johnson

Reflections

Having taught the ARCH 409 studio several times, my overall impression about the studio’s purpose within the curriculum continues to be mixed. Students with no previous exposure to construction materials can gain valuable insight about the purpose of standards and tolerances within basic construction methodology by building at full scale. However, the studio is also about design, so students often design the details and methods of construction, veering away from the standards. This studio is at a point within the studio sequence when students should be more sophisticated with their design ideas and their understanding of site relationships. Because of the time allotted in a semester and the learning curve in building things at full scale, the level of sophistication students can achieve is very limited. Ideally, if you can quickly understand what the students are capable of, and, as the instructor, be very pointed with the design agenda so that a level of sophistication is achieved, the studio will hopefully not be a distraction and will help students into their next studio.

Choosing to focus on the structural system for the semester was a very good change to the studio, because it focused the area of initial design, and it allowed students to understand the system first and then see how it could be affected by tectonic and material decisions, as well as programmatic and site forces. Dividing into smaller groups with radically different programs and sites helped students see the range of designs they could produce with the structural system they were employing. This also kept the studio from becoming a shop class, focusing on skill sets. The initial project also helped identify the skills students had and how they could work together. The evaluations helped reinforce what could be seen in the studio.

Looking back at some of the unexpected outcomes of introducing surveys and peer grading, the most surprising came in the comments themselves. Typical in any studio, but especially in the ARCH 409 studio, written skills often play a relatively minor role. Students do not typically complete written assignments, such as papers, and are usually asked for shorter responses. The student evaluations were not in themselves graded, but several students’ comments displayed a concerning, if not alarming, grasp of the English language. Three of the final student evaluations could not be used because they did not properly read the directions. This was reflective of some difficulties in basic verbal communication in the studio over the course of the semester. If I teach this studio in the future, I believe it may be beneficial to the students to grade these assessments, placing clear value on the quality of the commentary.

Necessary communication skills underpin any studio, and project statements, pin ups, and reviews are the way these skills are typically integrated within the studio. Unfortunately, these skills are de-emphasized in studio now. Open forum critique is often seen as discouraging to students’ learning and is being replaced by more individualized personal critique through “cocktail” style review, immediately depressurizing students from having to articulate their ideas in a presentation and making it difficult to learn from others in a direct and immediate fashion. The humanities are now seen as the more appropriate forum for this kind of learning, which can be a serious impairment to learning and safety in a fabrication environment. Assessing these skills separately will draw attention to them as a feature of a student’s grade, but I also worry that, like their humanities courses, the separation compartmentalizes these skills.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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