System Will Revolutionize Instruction of Architects When It Comes to Structural Analysis, Building Design

Release Date: January 4, 2002

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- An interdisciplinary team of University at Buffalo architects and engineers is working to revolutionize the instruction that architecture students receive when it comes to structural analysis and building technology.

While traditional instruction in the principles of structural analysis, design and building technology -- an academic field called "structures" -- has relied on abstract mathematical concepts, the UB team is working with an innovative instructional delivery system that uses high-quality digital graphics, animation and sound to visually demonstrate the principles.

The effort is being led by Shahin Vassigh, UB assistant professor of architecture who holds degrees in both engineering and architecture. Vassigh has received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to complete, implement and evaluate the Integrated Structures Instructional Package (ISIP), a digital system originated by her.

While understanding structures is central to the education of the architect, Vassigh says the content, methods and teaching tools currently used are methodologies developed outside the architecture discipline and borrowed from engineering programs. Instruction therefore is highly quantitative, communicating even basic concepts using a mathematics nomenclature.

"Many architecture students have neither the background, disposition nor time to master the mathematics skills required to understand or utilize a system based on highly abstract mathematical models," she adds, "and quickly become uninterested, frustrated or intimidated by the structures curriculum. As a result, many students fail to master the basics of structural theory, not to mention the more demanding aspects of applied structural design."

Vassigh explained that ISIP uses an advanced digital multi-media "electronic textbook" to help students learn and apply structural analysis and design in ways that are much more appropriate to the needs, capabilities and perspectives of architectural students.

"It will allow students to see just what happens to various members as the load travels through the entire structure. It will demonstrate visually ways in which various architects have solved specific structural problems in different buildings, bridges and other structures."

Vassigh, who holds a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and master's degrees in architecture and planning from UB, has worked on structural, hydraulic and transportation-related engineering projects throughout New York State. Her current research focuses on structural and architectural design, and on the application of digital media, including virtual reality, sound and animation, to structural pedagogy and instructional materials.

This research was recognized last spring by the Architectural Research Consortium Centers, and Vassigh has been the recipient of a number of professional awards, fellowships and grants for her work and publications.

"Instead of relying on only mathematical tools to teach and convey an understanding of material behavior in various conditions, we are working to complete and evaluate a complex, interdisciplinary software package that will provide visual access to material behavior," says Vassigh.

"The purpose of the new teaching method is to help architecture students develop their intuitive sense of what will or won't work and, at the same time, give them the concrete tools with which to understand and test their assumptions."

Once the program package is completed with the assistance of co-investigator Gary Scott Danford, UB professor of architecture, it will be tested at UB and at the University of Oregon by students of Christine Theodoropoulos of the University of Oregon's Department of Architecture, and will be evaluated by Patrick Tripeny at the graduate school of architecture at the University of Utah.

Several small educational-technology seed grants from UB helped Vassigh with her initial research and supported her graduate assistant, John Sisting, who has produced most of the digital work for prototype software.

When complete, ISIP will include the multimedia instructional electronic textbook, a detailed user tutorial and a project/product Web site that will provide student support, a structures "chat room" for leaving inquiries and a database of FAQs (frequently asked questions) about structures.

Co-investigators Andre Reinhorn, UB professor of civil engineering, and Bruce Majkowski, UB assistant dean of architecture, will provide Web-design expertise. Content will be reviewed by Ronald Shaeffer, professor of architecture at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and professor Edward Allen from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shaeffer and Allen are prominent authors of architectural textbooks in the field of structures and construction technology.

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