Design: The new toolkit for teaching engineering

While some educators debate the pros and cons of online learning, we think there’s a far more pressing and promising innovation that we need to offer today’s engineering students: Immersion in experiential design.

In this immersive approach, students pick up tools and techniques to design and make working models as needed to synthesize theoretical concepts into prototypes. Such hands-on design projects serve as integrative experiences, incorporating streams of thought from various disciplines as well as an appetite for creative problem-solving. In this way, freshmen engineering students can get an early taste for specialized areas like mechatronic systems and structural analysis, because such advanced topics present themselves in the students’ early design projects.

To bring this new pedagogy to life, we launched our Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation at the Clinton Global Initiative in June, anchored by a $20-million commitment from Paul and Stacy Jacobs. Today, we mark another key development in the design institute’s progress: Haas School of Business faculty fellow Sara Beckman has joined us as the institute’s first Chief Learning Officer.

Sara BeckmanSara BeckmanSara has been teaching at the Haas School on topics of design and technology innovation since 1993. She will guide our efforts in the Jacobs Institute to immerse design throughout the engineering curriculum. She will also continue to strengthen our close ties with the Haas School. Her first charge will be to plan a new undergraduate minor in design innovation, giving students at all class levels more opportunities to practice hands-on design, prototyping and even commercial development of their inventions.

Sara Beckman is that rare individual who can work at the intersection of technology and business to spark creativity, problem-solving and innovation in our students. She co-founded Haas’s first course on design in 1993. Her “New Product Development” course, co-taught since 1995 with mechanical engineering professor Alice Agogino, has been a launch pad for several successful companies.

Pending Academic Senate approvals, the College will offer the new minor to students starting in fall 2014. The following fall we expect to open Jacobs Hall, just north of Soda Hall, to provide our students with a variety of collaborative learning spaces and fabrication studios.

Joining the Jacobs Institute is “a tremendous opportunity to enhance what is already a great undergraduate engineering program at Berkeley,” says Beckman, who holds a Ph.D. in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford. “Students will get even more hands-on practice approaching problems from an interdisciplinary and collaborative perspective—a critical skill for real-world careers.”

What is your view? Share your own thoughts on experiential engineering education by contacting me at

S. Shankar Sastry
Dean and Roy W. Carlson Professor of Engineering
Director, Blum Center for Developing Economies

Topics: College news, Design, Faculty