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Living on Campus 2002
Inspirational speech finds a modern echo
Architectural Illuminations

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School of Architecture and Planning


A detailed illustration of various structural connections used in building design.

photo courtesy Shahin Vassigh


Screen capture of the beam module showing beam behavior under loads.

photo courtesy Shahin Vassigh



Screen captures of (above) the impact of wind loads on various building forms and (below) a visual description of the effect of torsion on structural elements.

photo courtesy Shahin Vassigh
Architectural Illuminations


Consecutive animation frames showing the attachment of a steel column to a concrete base.

photo courtesy Shahin Vassigh

By Scott Thomas

    Since the time of Plato, great teachers have wrestled with the question: How can I get my students to really understand this concept?

    If only Plato had had a bank of computers loaded with Macromedia Director, 3D Studio, Adobe Photoshop, Pentium III chips, dual processors, high-end video cards, and more zippy animations and sound effects than you can shake a mouse at.

    Then Plato could have taught philosophy the way Shahin Vassigh, assistant professor in UB's School of Architecture and Planning, is teaching "structures," the math-intensive technical part of the architecture curriculum that every would-be I.M. Pei suffers through.

    For four years now, Vassigh has been developing a multimedia teaching program to impart the basics of how columns, trusses, beams and other structural elements work—how they respond to stresses, how they're secured, how they bear loads. The program, which runs on any computer, supplements classroom lectures and replaces traditional structures textbooks, with their bland line drawings, force arrows (simple arrows that graphically represent a force being applied to a structure) and endless mathematical equations.

    "My idea was to remove abstraction from the model," says Vassigh, who holds UB degrees in architecture, urban planning and civil engineering. "In most books [on structures], you see arrows and you don't know—what are these arrows? It's hard to connect them up with real things. These are all abstract concepts. That was my dissatisfaction with my own training."

    But boot up the Integrated Structures Instructional Package (ISIP), as the experiment is formally known, and you'll enter a world where bridges and buildings come alive. Looking at the triangular trusses that make up a certain kind of bridge, for example, the user can click a button and see a simulation of wind as it exerts force on the bridge—and see, in a stylized animation, how the structure actually bends slightly, changing color as it does so. Another click, and the animation changes instantly to the schematic of the elementary physics that it represents. Open a window, and the user can zoom in on a section of the structure, or rotate it to inspect it from different angles. A narrator reads the text of this electronic textbook; the words also appear on screen.

    The program is not without a sense of fun. A section on equilibrium, for example, comes with an animation of a unicyclist teetering on a circus high wire; a seesaw animation teaches the basics of levers and offsetting forces.

Prof. Shahin Vassigh seeks "to remove abstraction from the model" in teaching the math-intensive part of the architecture curriculum.
photo: KC Kratt
    "I teach the technical aspects of architecture," Vassigh says. "Most architecture students are more interested in the studio courses—that's the core of architectural education. These other courses support that.

    "Often an architect will work with an engineer, but they have to develop a language so they can talk to that engineer. Architects tend to do difficult things. We are hoping we can educate them so they can have that conversation intelligently. The architects who are really successful are the ones who are bridging the art and the technology."

    Vassigh's project, whose early stages were funded through small "seed grants" from the university, recently was awarded a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. That money frees her somewhat from her teaching load to devote more time to the project, and enables her to collaborate with two other UB faculty members (Andrei Reinhorn from the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering and Gary Scott Danford from the School of Architecture and Planning). Danford is responsible for testing and evaluating the project. Spring 2002 has been a "control group" semester, in which the structures course is being taught with only traditional textbooks; next spring, Vassigh will teach this same course using the full version of the ISIP program, in order to gauge whether students learn the material better with multimedia help. The program will be tested at the University of Oregon in fall 2002.

    "Most of the stuff in the textbooks is really diagrammatic, really vague, really general, and it's hard to understand with a conventional diagram how these structural systems work," says Michael Richards, who did research for the ISIP project and, as a teaching assistant to Vassigh, saw it in action in the classroom. "With these animations, you can actually get inside a beam, for example, and see which way the forces are pulling. It's pretty interesting.

    "It kind of modernizes the whole classroom and brings it to a level that some of the younger generations can relate to. I see a lot of the younger students interested in computers and animations," Richards continues. "I think, if they can see this in a learning atmosphere, it can spark their interest in the course and hopefully improve their performance."

    Indeed, Vassigh notes, structures students taking the course without multimedia and struggling with a particular concept have suggested, "Why not just use an animation to show this?" "They're thinking in those terms anyway," she says. "Our students already get training in these programs; a lot of multimedia is required. They know [multimedia teaching] is possible."

    Another TA, architecture graduate student Laurie Baker, says the way the program deals with the mathematics of structures is especially useful. "Nobody likes to read math," she says. "There are people who like the theory of architecture, and there are people who like the engineering. You really have to know both. Some people can do the math, but some people need the animation to really understand it."

    Architecture graduate student John Sisting has devoted countless hours to the ISIP project since his senior undergraduate year. He produces the animations, using the modeling program 3D Studio; Macromedia Director makes possible the interactivity that allows the user to jump back and forth through the various diagrams, animations, text and so forth. It's no easy task; the details have a way of multiplying. "We keep saying we're about 75 percent done," Sisting says wryly.

    Vassigh expects to complete the multimedia project this summer. Once testing is complete, the hope is that the program will be picked up by an educational publisher for wider distribution. In the meantime, there's talk of a website that will demonstrate some features of the program, and a printed tutorial and faculty guide.

    "I think the possibilities are amazing," Vassigh says, "and I'm surprised more educators aren't doing this."

    The ISIP project, while particularly ambitious, isn't unique in higher education these days, as educators learn how they can make technology work to good advantage. Carole Ann Fabian, arts and humanities librarian who manages the architecture and art history collections, and previously served as educational technology librarian, sees professors and publishers experimenting with a broad range of tech-savvy options.

    Textbook publishers, for example, are packaging their books with CD-ROMs or pointing students to special websites with, for example, tutorial tests for reviewing the material, or packages of maps or supplementary reading. Many faculty members, she says, put up their own websites that offer everything from the course syllabus to digital audio of classroom lectures, from research guides to "pointers" toward library resources that deepen the students' experiences of the subject.

    "The more interactive you can make those activities, the more beneficial they are to students," Fabian says. "The technology offers us a whole range of choices for how we can change our teaching in a way that might improve student learning.

    "The kids love it. But the big question is, is this making any difference? It's a huge effort to produce these pieces of educational technology. What really makes sense about Professor Vassigh's book is that it offers a new way of teaching the material that was heretofore unavailable and not observable. I think the injection of multimedia into the understanding of structures is a critical link that could not have been delivered in another medium."

    Says Vassigh, "I used to have a lot of students almost falling asleep. This keeps them up! I'm hoping the program will create an interest level in the subject—and if they understand structures better, it will make them better architects."

Scott Thomas is copyediting coordinator of the Buffalo News.

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