Introduction to Engineering Design, the course I co-teach with Ann Saterbak was recently mentioned in a published discussion about instructional design. The discussion was between Josh Eyler, Director of Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Sean Michael Morris. Among other topics, they touch on the importance of discovery for learning.

Josh says:

Like you, I firmly believe that curiosity and discovery are the foundation for learning. Students need to wonder; to be puzzled; to try, fail, try, fail, and try again in order for them to build knowledge and make meaning. Much of the discussion here, then, probably comes down to the issue of terminology. For me, PBL and inquiry-based learning are large umbrellas under which sit a variety of strategies. Certainly, as you say, there are some courses where activities might be rooted in discovery, but the discoveries are either already predetermined by the instructor or there is so much structure that it inhibits the process itself.

On the other hand, in just a few minutes I am heading over to take part in a pitch session for our ENGI 120 course. ENGI 120 is a Freshman Design course in the School of Engineering. At the beginning of each semester, the students listen to pitches from folks at Rice and the larger Houston community. They then vote on the projects they would most like to work on and spend at least a semester trying to design a solution. In the past, they have developed mechanical limbs, housing for birds at the Houston Zoo, and a device (featuring a regular old mousetrap!) designed to treat dehydration in children in African countries. Students work in teams, and they receive guidance from Ann Saterbak and Matthew Wettergreen, two of our faculty. The answers are unknown, and there is no guarantee that the projects will be successful. Students are simply given the freedom to explore and create with the goal of making real change. This, to me, is PBL at its finest, but I am also aware that many courses look far different from this.

Read the entire discussion on the Digital Pedagogy Lab site here.

This is the time of year where we solicit project for our first-year engineering design course. Please see below and email me ( or comment below if you have a project idea for us to tackle. We LOVE solving community partners problems and I am looking to schedule phone calls and in-person meetings with people to select our projects by mid-August.

Many engineers at Rice University solve an authentic, client-based design challenge during their freshman year.  Through the course, Introduction to Engineering Design (ENGI 120), students work in multi-disciplinary teams to design and build solutions to these challenges. These projects allow Rice students to discover the importance and relevance of engineering by solving contemporary problems whose solutions benefit clients or society directly.  The course is housed in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK,  The course instructors are issuing an open call for high-quality client-based or community-driven projects to be solved by first-year Rice University engineering students.

As part of this call we are asking you to submit worthwhile and relevant ideas, problems, or areas of improvement you observe in your career, your company, or daily life. We will work with you to frame the problem to include underlying engineering principles and be tractable for a team of first-year engineering students to complete over the course of one semester.  Characteristics of successful projects include:

  • solvable without any specific disciplinary engineering knowledge,
  • multiple parts or pieces, making it easy to be worked on by a team,
  • the opportunity for prototype design and iteration, and
  • open-ended (i.e., you can readily visualize several different ways to solve the project).

Projects in ENGI 120 are funded by Rice University. There is no financial cost as a submitter of ideas or as a project mentor.  Project mentors typically spend 10-20 hours working with a student team during the semester.

Since inception of the course in spring 2011, we have worked with the Houston Zoo, several museums, Shell Oil, Wilson Elementary School (HISD), Shriners Hospital, Texas Children’s Hospital, and others.  Our students have developed products that have been deployed to the community.  For example:

In summary, teams of first-year engineering students at Rice University are eager to solve authentic, real-world problem faced by you or your company.  During the course, first-year students gain early experience in the engineering field, appreciate the relevance of engineering problem solving, and work in a team-based professional environment. You have the opportunity to mentor a team of bright and motivated students for a semester as well as benefit from their ideas and prototype design.  We encourage you to think carefully and then submit possible project ideas.  To submit an idea, schedule a meeting, or discuss a project, please contact us!

Levar Burton recently launched a Kickstarter campaign fundraising for his Reading Rainbow mobile application. In discussing the importance of children’s education, Screenrant says the following:

Shows like Sesame StreetMister Roger’s Neighborhood and Reading Rainbow don’t resonate merely because they are things from childhood, like a favorite action figure or a doll; these shows helped to nurture our innate sense of wonder and it introduced that part of our minds to the majesty of literature and words, things that sustain that sense of wonder still.

We should be talking about these shows and some additional ones including Electric Company, Square One, and 3-2-1 Contact more often for this exact reason. These are children’s shows that richly embed education in an entertainment-based package.  Having recently watched several episodes of classic Sesame Street I can report the show to be of surprisingly high quality and does not seem to have aged. Were I to have children I would have no qualms about showing them all of these shows on re-runs in lieu of newer programming offers.

Levar Burton’s Reading Rainbow Kickstarter is here.

This blog post was written in ten minutes because that’s all the time I had. Earlier this fall I designed and built a dog house that I am surprisingly proud of.

This weekend the doghouse will be featured alongside some other doghouses designed by some other design-experienced people. Historically this Barkitecture event has been populated by doghouses designed and built by architects and designers and I am an engineer so be prepared to play “one of these things is not like the other…”

Today’s event runs from 5-9pm at Mia Bella Patio and tomorrow at GreenStreet for an auction benefitting Pup Squad Animal Rescue. If you really like doghouses consider purchasing one in the charity auction tomorrow at GreenStreet.

If you cannot attend, I will post pictures. If you are the kind of person who is going to gouge your eyes out if you have to look at ONE MORE picture, then here is my description: “Ancient geometry manufactured using advanced fabrication and survivalist sewing skills.” If you go to Barkitecture today and grab the brochure you will find an entirely different description of my doghouse written by the good people at GreenStreet (thank you Courtney Ray) because I didn’t send them a description in time because I never mastered “email.” In the near future some documentation will be produced showcasing the process with more pictures and replicatable directions but don’t hold your breath because I suck at fini

Ever tried to fold up a map and couldn’t? Edit: what’s a paper map? You’re not alone. Maps don’t have clear fold lines that direct you towards an ordered process of folding, resulting in that complete mess by the fourth step or so. It gets much easier if the fold lines are clear.

Recently I’ve been working with shapes and patterns that do have clear fold lines and have been converting 2D sheets into three-dimensional objects by bending, twisting, or folding. A reverse example: if we take the [3D] cube below and unfold it we obtain six squares in the [2D] pattern. I’ve been using these 2D patterns, called nets, to fold up polyhedra back into 3D.

Nerd note: if you unfold a 4D cube (hypercube) you are left with something called a “tesseract” that looks like this:

, not this.

The polyhedra I’m folding are taken from the Platonic and Archimedean set, something I’ve used heavily in my thesis and related work. This time they’re being used in a shape study for a doghouse that will be showcased at Barkitecture Houston next month. The picture below shows one the unfolded net for the Truncated Icosahedron.

After folding and gluing the polyhedra they look like this:

Ok, so maybe you don’t have a laser cutter available to burn through cardboard. Luckily you can get the same effect using paper, Elmer’s, and some scissors. There are a number of resources available on the web where you can download and print out some of these patterns to fold up your own polyhedra. I’ve listed some of them below:

Places to download existing polyhedra patterns (nets) to print out and fold up:

  • Platonic Solids Fold Up Patterns. A well-constructed infographic like image including all the platonic solids and additional geometric info about the polyhedra.
  • Archimedean Polyhedra Folding Patterns. Colored patterns for the Platonic and Archimedean solids. You’ll need to remember to cut out tabs for gluing these together.
  • Paper Models of Polyhedra. Nearly every major polyhedra, compounds, and other available, in color, for download in .pdf form. Includes excellent pictures of all the examples.
  • Map Foldouts. Includes color images of the globe mapped to platonic polyhedra for folding your own pseudoglobe.

Places that allow you to download 3D files of polyhedra for manipulation or 3D printing:

Programs that will allow you to import your own files and export sheets for printing and folding:

  • Pepakura 3D is an easy-to-use, free program that accepts 3D files and exports 2D patterns for folding. Perfect for those of you who are thinking you need a complicated mask for Halloween but don’t know how to start.
  • Javagami is a free, java-based program for designing and printing polyhedra patterns for folding
  • Stella is a polyhedral viewing program that also has hundreds of sample polyhedra patterns that can be downloaded, printed, and folded.
  • Ori-Revo is a free japanese modeling program that creates complex fold patterns based complicated 3D geometry

If you know how to work with vertex files to generate geometry, here are some resources to download or visualize polyhedra:

Hope you enjoy these resources. You now have no excuse for a high-quality Halloween mask. If you print anything out and make it please post a link to it in the comments!

When it comes to swimming in cold water there are generally two schools of thought on how to start. You can ease yourself into the water, gradually acclimating to the temperature of the pool, or you can jump in and suffer the brief shock before quickly getting down to business.

If we are talking pools then I am very much in the former but for the first week of school I am in the latter. I try and start all of my classes with an activity, waking students up and setting expectations for active participation over the entire semester. Due to the popularity of its Introduction to Engineering (ENGI 120) Rice has added an additional section that I am responsible for. The course’s founder, Ann Saterbak, is in the same school of thought with regards to the first days of classes. For that reason this course begins with an team-based engineering challenge called the Marshmallow Challenge.

The Marshmallow Challenge is an engaging team building challenge with strong ties to the engineering and architecture field. The challenge is widely known most likely for its simple execution and wide applicability. There is even a TED talk (link at the bottom) about the challenge and the performance of specific cohorts: CEOs, kindergardeners, MBAs, engineers, etc.

To run the Marshmallow Challenge yourself collect:
20 spaghetti sticks
1 yd masking tape
1 yd string
1 marshmallow

Give yourself 18 minutes to build the tallest tower you can using the above components. The structure must be free-standing and the whole marshmallow should be on the top. Measure the height of your structure.

It’s ok to stop now and run the challenge. Know that reading the remainder of the post without running the challenge will give you a competitive advantage when you do finally get around to running it.

When we have run this challenge with students: prospective, freshman, engineers, it doesn’t matter; we observe almost the same result. Students spend on the order of 30 seconds discussing what to do, but really what happens is they spend 30 seconds figuring out who the alpha is so they can follow that person’s directions for the remainder of the time. Then they build for almost all of the time. In most cases the marshmallow makes it to the top of the structure sometime between when the facilitator calls “two minutes” and when the facilitator counts down “10…9…”

When time is called one thing is certain, every team has built a structure optimized for height. Few however have built a structure that was also optimized for load. The instructions clearly direct participants to build the tallest structure with a marshmallow on top. Students read the literal word “tallest” and focus on that point. Nowhere in the instructions are words like “rigid,” “load bearing,” or any other keyword that would explicitly state to the students “HEY, this structure has to be strong too!” This is the first teaching point of this challenge: coach the students to dig deeper into a set of instructions to find the hidden challenge. For the marshmallow challenge, it’s not about building the tallest tower, it’s about building the strongest tower that is also tall.

The second teaching point is one that I particularly emphasize in my engineering classes: the iterative nature of work. In reviewing the students’ approach to this challenge what we see is typically ONE version of the structure that takes on the order of 18 minutes to build (and then fail). Success in this challenge is most often assured when a completely different approach is taken: build multiple towers of increasing height, all that support the marshmallow as a minimum criteria. In watching the TED talk you’ll be surprised to see which group consistently uses that tactic to success.

The idea of iteration is one that is central to the Engineering Design Process and the workflow of many other professional’s careers. In ENGI 120 it is essential that the students develop multiple prototypes of their client-based solution, improving in each step. We use the failure in the Marshmallow Challenge as a shared experience to revisit with the class as a teaching point for how the students can iterate over a short period of time, namely a semester. The powerful teaching point for students is that no one, not even professionals, are capable of producing their best work in a first draft. Therefore the dominant strategy is to quickly produce working versions that can be gradually improved over time.

The main teaching point for everyone then is the question not how far can you go, but how fast can you iterate?

Watch the TED talk about the marshmallow challenge here.

Check out some of the pictures from this year’s ENGI 120 Marshmallow Challenge from the set on Flickr.

This summer, four fellows representing some of the best young talent in advanced manufacturing have descended upon Houston to work on rapid prototyping thrusts for one month. This all fell under a new organization I am proud to be a part of along with Dr. Jordan Miller, newly an Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice University. We’re calling this organization AMRI: Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute.

Jordan and I are heavily motivated in our careers by mentorship and education. We both feel a responsibility to translate our knowledge in a way that can be easily understood by students of all ages. The fellowship component of AMRI presents a perfect opportunity to work with smart, motivated young students in the maker community and arm them with tools from the scientific community.

We hope you are able to share in our excitement about this organization either by simply reading about it, or by joining our web broadcast of the final talks tomorrow (details below), or even by making a tax-deductible donation to the 501c3 institute here.

About AMRI

The Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute is focused on providing breakthrough mentorship, infrastructure, and research funding for promising young makers to pursue their interests using the scientific method. It accomplishes this through an intensive fellowship where mentor and student work closely together to tailor the learning based on a three-tiered framework closely resembling the engineering design process:  a) define, design, and develop, b) quantify and qualify, and, c) document and deploy. The conclusion of each fellowship will see all fellows publicly presenting their work to an open audience of peers and the general public as well as publishing all their work online free for all to use.

In the summer of 2013 AMRI welcomed its first fellows for a one-month pilot program at Rice University in the laboratory of Dr. Jordan Miller.

For more information about AMRI, please see the announcement post to the Rep Rap blog earlier this month:

2013 AMRI Fellows

Andreas Bastian“3D Printing via laser-sintering of thermoplastic powders”

Andreas Bastian’s interests lie in processes and materials, specifically those that manipulate the (traditionally) immutable. He has worked in a variety of crafts and disciplines, ranging from traditional Japanese wood-fired cermics to blacksmithing and foundry work to engineering design of and for 3D printers (and other creative tools). He comes to AMRI from Makerbot where he ran the R&D lab focusing on the fundamentals of additive manufacturing. Andreas is a recent graduate of Swarthmore with a B.S. in Engineering.
Steve Kelly“Ink-jet printing of genetically modified living bacteria”

Steve Kelly is passionate about open source hardware and software. He is directly involved with distributed manufacturing and CAD software development. Currently he is a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, studying Mathematics.
Anderson Ta“Digital light projection (DLP) photolithography of plastics and hydrogels”

Anderson is a digital fabrication expert. By day he oversees the dFab Studio at the Maryland Institute College of Art. By night, he operates Matterfy LLC, promoting and evangelizing 3D printing hardware. Anderson has led some of the very first 3D printer build workshops in the United States.
Ravi Sheth“Bacterial cellstruder for synthetic biology studies”

Ravi is interested in using engineering principles and open source tools to understand the complexity of biology and to create synthetic biological circuits. A recent recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, Ravi currently conducts research under Dr. Jeff Tabor in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice University where he also is a student.

AMRI is currently run strictly through donations by a collection of advanced manufacturing companies, universities, and granted funds. We are taking tax-deductible donations of any amount through Rice University’s 501(c)3 here. The charge to your account will read “RICE-IT WEB SRVC”
Donations will be used to help support the current projects, and any excess funds then organized to launch AMRI publicly and openly for Summer 2014 projects.


AMRI has been graciously sponsored by the following universities, departments, companies, and granted funds:
Rice University
Department of Bioengineering
Bioscience Research Collaborative
Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)
Maker Juice
Maker Gear

Final AMRI Fellow Presentations

Join us tomorrow, Friday, August 22nd at 4pm CST for final presentations from the 2013 AMRI Fellows. The format will be brief talks (~5min) by the fellows followed by 10-15 min Q&A / discussion about each project. The public is invited to watch and participate. Talks will be slightly technical but are designed to engage both the general public and the technically minded.

Student engineering teams at Rice University solve authentic, client-based design challenges during their education. Through the course, Introduction to Engineering Design (ENGI 120), the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen is offering the opportunity for first-year students to design and build solutions to engineering design challenges. These multi-disciplinary team projects allow freshman Rice students to discover the importance and relevance of engineering early in their careers by solving contemporary problems whose solutions benefit clients or society directly. The course instructors, Ann Saterbak and Matthew Wettergreen, are issuing an open call for high-quality client-based or community-driven projects to be solved by first-year engineering students in ENGI 120.

As part of this call we are asking you to submit worthwhile and relevant ideas, problems, or areas for improvement you observe in your career, your company, or daily life. Our faculty will work with you to frame the problem to be tractable for a team of first-year engineering students to complete over the course of one semester. Projects that have been successful typical are solvable without any specific disciplinary engineering knowledge; have multiple parts or pieces, making it easy to be worked on by a team; have the opportunity for prototype design and iteration; and are open-ended (i.e., you can readily visualize several different ways to solve the project). Since the OEDK funds all project materials, there is no financial cost to you as a submitter of ideas or as a project mentor. Typically project mentors spend 15-20 hours working with a student team during the semester.

Since inception of the course in spring 2011, we have worked with the Houston Zoo, Shell Oil, Wilson Elementary School (HISD), Shriners Hospital, and other partners. Our students have already developed products that have been deployed to the community. Designed for pediatric patients in the developing world, students designed and built a device that limits the flow of IV fluid from a 1-L bag ( In collaboration with the Houston Zoo, student teams designed and built a new giraffe hay feeder and a puzzle feeder for the orangutans (

In summary, teams of first-year engineering students at Rice University are eager to solve authentic, real-world problems faced by you or your company. During the course, first-year students gain early experience in the engineering field, appreciate the relevance of engineering problem solving, and work in a team-based professional environment. You have the opportunity to mentor a team of bright and motivated students for a semester as well as benefit from their ideas and prototype design. We encourage you to think carefully about and submit possible project ideas. To submit an idea, schedule a meeting with the course instructor, or discuss a project or a collaboration with your company/organization, please email or

Matthew Wettergreen, Ph.D.
Lecturer, Rice University

Ann Saterbak, Ph.D.
Professor in the Practice, Rice University

Startup Texas / Startup America are co-presenting a community roundtable on September 20th, 2012 entitled “What Can We Learn From Other Cities?” I will be joining a panel of Houston locals who bring to the table experience with startup community models from other cities.

Marc Nathan will sit on the panel and moderate. Some of the topics covered may be: workspaces (coworking, maker/hackerspaces), incubators/accelerators, tax reinvestment zones, funding sources, IP commercialization programs, mentors, events, conferences, corporate sponsorships and partnerships, and hackathons. Please be prepared with your own questions to pose to the panel and to elicit a fruitful discussion.  As with every panel, we hope to provide some firm takeaways for individuals and groups while collectively framing the characteristics of each model and it’s merits in our unique geographical locale.

The other speakers on the panel bring a wealth of experience from a number of already successful startup centers around the nation (not to mention Houston):

Alicia DiRago (Chicago)
Ned Dodington (Houston)
Jeff Kaplan (Houston, DC)
Marc Nathan, Moderator (Houston, Austin)
Jeff Reichman (Houston, Philadelphia)
Grace Rodriguez (Houston, NYC)
Apurva Sanghavi (NYC)
Matthew Wettergreen (Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia)

Startup Community Roundtable: What Can We Learn From Other Cities?
September 20, 2012, 6-8pm, START Houston
1121 Delano St. Houston, TX 77003
Facebook Event

Thanks to Startup Texas / Startup America, Jeff Reichman and Marc Nathan for organizing, and START Houston for hosting this event.

This weekend Saturday night marks the end of a two-year long community-based concert series, Tom Paynter’s The Caroline Sessions. To celebrate, a Last Waltz event of sorts is being held at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, complete with new musical collaborations, the recording of a live album and of course a long-form video of the affair. This will be the most special of all Caroline Sessions because the artists playing (Frank Freeman, Chase Hamblin, Matt Harlan, Andrew Karnavas, Clory Martin, Corey Power, and Melissa Savcic) have designed a unique show including once-in-a-lifetime collaborations with each other and other TBD special guests. Tickets are $15 for this event which include beverages from Saint Arnold’s taps. This is a must see event that will sell out, thanks in no small part to the popularity of Saint Arnold Brewing Company. Buy ‘em here.

The Caroline Sessions are something I’ve been extremely proud of since it began. In many ways, the ideals of Caroline Collective helped to shape the design of this event series as a whole: community, collaboration, and overcoming shared challenges. In the original conception, up-and-coming bands would play in a comfortable setting to friends and fans, working on new material or their live show. Audience members would be via invite only or open to the community at large and would eat, drink, and mingle during the show. Following the event, video and audio of select songs would be provided for the band for them to use online to promote themselves and book additional shows. None of these events were to have an associated cost: audience members would bring their own food/drink or contribute to a community tip jar, artists would be given audio and video for free.

The overall goal was to lower the barrier for artists to work on their craft, receive instant feedback on their performance and generate rich media (audio and video) that they can use to promote themselves and book additional shows in the future. There was the hope that the small audience in attendance would allow the bands intimate contact with those who could help support them as fans in the future. Also in the plans were for the bands who would play to forge new musical collaborations with artists they shared the bill with, something you’ll see in action on Saturday.

Tom Paynter and his small group of collaborators deserve a world of credit for producing this event, almost without fail every month for the last two years. Caroline Sessions has grown into much more than the original idea, opened up to the general public and inviting the community to join in the event by bringing food, drink, friends and family. This comfortable, backyard BBQ setting has let us all see some well known Houston artists as well as the new ones. The Caroline Sessions hosted the Japanese Nuclear Relief Concert, held remote sessions at Buffalo Bayou Brewery, Culture Map, Spring Street Studios, and now returns to Saint Arnold Brewing Company for its finale. Along the way Gorrealah Soul descended interrupting a holiday show, artists held a group sing-a-long, and Ben Wesley played on the roof.

See video of Ben Wesley playing on the roof of Caroline Collective here. Hope to see all of you at this exciting closer of one of Houston’s great ongoing concert series.