Learn by Doing

There is a wonderful story in David Bayles and Ted Orland's Art and Fear about learning by doing. An art instructor tells his pottery class that the left side of the classroom will be graded on the total weight of the pots they create during the semester. At the end of the course, the teacher said he'd bring in his bathroom scales and weigh their pots: fifty pounds of pots would be an "A," forty pounds a "B," thirty pounds a "C," and so forth. The right-hand side of the class would be graded on the quality of only one pot. Their job was to make the best pot they could and to turn it in for a judgment on quality alone.

So at the end of the semester, guess what happened. The quantity students not only made the most pots—they also made the best pots. While the quality students sat around and theorized about the perfect pot, the quantity students were busy making lots of pots. The quantity students learned from their mistakes and didn't get hung up on perfection. Their quality steadily improved with the pots they made and they ended up surpassing the quality students.

This "Parable of the Pots" is a story I tell my senior students in their spacecraft design course. I want them to overcome their fears of making mistakes and to learn by doing. (Doers do it better.) Aerospace design has similarities to art. There is no theory of design that works in all cases. (There are many handbooks that have the word "design" in the title, but these books are usually about technique and prior designs.) Creativity is required; something new and interesting should be produced.

Aerospace students are taught a lot of math, physics, and engineering before they are asked to design a spacecraft. These courses are but the background, just as art has a theory of color and perspective. Putting all the techniques together to create a new design is a different story.

Students have been taught piecemeal courses by reductionist methods (i.e., little pictures). Design requires a holistic view—the big picture. It is a small wonder that students approach their senior design course in a state of trepidation. Will what they do add up to anything?

So I tell them the Parable of the Pots to allay their fears. When it comes to design, you learn by doing.

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