Sunday, April 27, 2014

Teaching Engineering Through Architectural Problem Solving: The Case of Pippo the Fool and the Egg

Our classroom soon turned into an architectural model making workshop.  Domes and architectural elements – especially Doric, Ionic, Corinthian columns – were on everyone’s mind.  Doodles and watercolor paintings started turning into architectural explorations as the children embraced
the aesthetic designs and challenges. 
G. and E.K. add their dome creations to their
classmates’ designs on our whiteboard
Before beginning our next round of model making in a new medium – clay – it was time to share a great story from Western architectural history:  the story of Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect behind one of the greatest dome achievements - the crowning glory of the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.  Heavily influenced by Roman architectural design, Brunelleschi was interested in the lack of visible supports in the Pantheon.  How had the ancient Romans contended with the challenge of supporting a heavy dome and the compression and tension forces that exert themselves on vaulted structures? 

Brunelleschi ("Pippo") 
The Duomo in Florence
Together as a class, we read the book Pippo the Fool by Tracy E. Fern (and at home, their geeky teacher was reading Brunelleschi's Dome: How A Renaissance Genius Invented Architecture by Ross King).   In brief, the church in Florence was without a dome for many decades, and an architectural design competition was held to find the person up to the task.  

In helping the children think through design and the physics involved in engineering a dome, we related to them a funny story about Brunelleschi and the design competition.   It may or may not be true, but it did help simplify some of our thinking about domes.  In our model making to date, the students had observed the need to keep the dome from being too top heavy, and that the shape of the dome needed to be like a bowl or perhaps like half of an orange, or kind of like an egg.  The story about Pippo does indeed involve an egg.  How is a dome like an egg?  Pippo offered all the architects he was competing with a challenge, stating that the commission to build the dome should be given to the person who could make an egg stand on end.  We gave that same challenge to our students.

Several attempts were made to try to keep it standing up:  propping it up, using our hands to support it...and then crack!  T. thinks she has it - but does she?

In the Pippo story, after all the architects tried unsuccessfully to keep their eggs up, Pippo then simply took his egg, cracked it, and then placed it on a table where it stood up –  his “egg dome,” along with his model, won him the commission to build the Duomo. 

picture of the egg domes, a la Brunelleschi 

Above:  The children give egg dome making a try, using the Pippo technique

So what did the egg experiment teach us about domes?  Basically an egg is like two domes, one on top of the other, and eggs are a simple way to not only understand dome design, but also the compression and tension physics involved.  As King noted in his book about Brunelleschi, “The humble egg has long fascinated scientists and engineers…’Why is it that an egg held with your hands by its top and bottom and pressed with great force cannot be crushed?’…the egg – or rather a half egg-shell, placed upside down – was the inspiration behind the architecture of the domed vault.” 
Stephanie and I are trying desperately to crack an egg with
equal amounts of pressure on both ends.  Eggs are amazingly strong!
After showing that the eggs would not break when we exerted equal pressure on both ends of the eggs, we then demonstrated what would happen if unequal pressure was exerted…by dropping the egg on the table.  Our thinking about how a dome's structure has to take into account the pressures exerted by materials and gravity was becoming clearer.  Our next challenge as engineers and architects was to take it further and on to the next step in model making in clay. 

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