Design-Centric Pedagogy

Control Engineering with Competitive Atmosphere

One of the hallmarks of the Singapore University of Technology & Design’s design-centric education is integration of multi-disciplinary designettes into the curriculum. Designettes are glimpses, snapshots, small-scale, short turnaround and well-scoped design problems that provide a significant design experience. In SUTD, designettes have evolved to be invaluable pedagogical tools for teaching fundamental engineering subject matter in combination with design processes and methods to provide students with creative pedagogical experiences across courses, time and disciplines. This is in-line with the global trend of engineering education towards project-based hands-on learning in teams. The main difference between project-based learning and designettes is that the former usually engages in a semester-long project resulting in a single product while the latter do not need to be the focus of the entire course and can be implemented with greater finesse and efficacy.

Control engineering is a cornerstone of most undergraduate engineering programs in colleges and universities around the world. The analysis and synthesis of automatic controllers, in particular, the PID controller, is a central focus of these courses and modules. However, due to its highly abstract nature, students usually find the content challenging and difficult to comprehend. This is aggravated by the employment of traditional lecture/recitation deductive teaching formats as means of delivery of the content. Here, an inductive-based week long design activity strategically held in the middle of the semester was conceived to introduce and motivate the notion of feedback control. During the course of the week, students in teams design, analyze and synthesize automatic controllers to enable a standardized differential wheeled robotic platform to traverse a line circuit autonomously. The strategy to achieve this capability is intentionally left to be open-ended, and students have the design freedom to select and position sensors needed to sense the track, as well as implement and troubleshoot the programming required to enable autonomous control. The activity culminates with a pulsating head-to-head single elimination tournament to decide the overall champion.

The main goal of the 2D designette is to provide a refreshing and stimulating avenue to introduce, comprehend and implement the notion of automatic controllers, which is arguably one of the most important concepts in control engineering. To achieve this, the following attributes and features of the designette were considered to encourage and foster the experiential learning style in the Kolb Cycle:

  • One week duration: While students are accustomed semester long projects, such a long duration is not conducive for learning new and highly abstract concepts. If the activity is too short, like a day, it may not be long enough to instigate learning cycles within individual students. In addition, there are no new content or assignments due during 2D week and all class hours of 30.101 and 30.007 are dedicated for students to participate and engage in the challenge so students can fully concentrate at the task at hand.
  • Middle of semester: Most projects are usually issued towards the end of the semester after all the material has been delivered. As the finals are around the corner, it will be hard to maintain an immersive designette as all of them will be fully occupied with exam preparations as well as other end of semester deadlines. Having it too early in the semester is also not recommended as the students may not have acquired sufficient knowledge to engage with sufficient technical depth. Moreover, a project in the middle of the semester, just after the recess week, provides a perfect intermission between the two halves of the semester. The first half focusing on mathematical foundation and modelling while the second half emphasizing on characterization, analysis of systems for controller design.
  • Inductive learning: The 2D designette is specially planned so that it occurs just before the topic of automatic control, block diagram and PID controllers are covered, which means the students would have no background or prior knowledge of controllers during the challenge week. This approach is adopted with every intention to generate a highly invigorating atmosphere as students venture into the unknown and well beyond their comfort zone. This environment is especially conducive to invoke inductive learning rather than the norm of deductive learning which is employed by most academic classes. Inductive learning relies on the student’s ability to notice the pattern emerging and this is accelerated by the numerous learning cycles necessitated by the format of the 2D challenge.
  • An exciting competitive atmosphere: A competitive environment is an experience that not many students experience in college. Those who do usually acquire them in inter or intra-varsity competitions (Formulae SAE Eco-marathon challenges, etc.), which usually make up a minority of the cohort. Hence integrating an exciting tournament (heads-up single elimination format similar to the NCAA basketball bracket or the Wimbledon Tennis Championship) will inject energy into to the designette and provide extra motivation to the students. This impetus is also inspired from qualitative and quantitative observations from a design competition for capstone and merits of competition environments for fostering learning and decision making skills.
  • Open-ended hands-on solution: Unlike homework, quizzes and midterms which usually have preset single answer, the 2D designette is formulated such that there are numerous approaches and strategies to achieve the objective of devising and implementing a physical feedback controller onto to a standardized robotic platform so that it could navigate around a marked track fully autonomously. The platform is regulated so that students focus more on the autonomous strategy rather than mechanical enhancements (such as faster motors, lower gearing). Integrating and positioning sensors to detect the marked track is a key milestone of the designette as it provides the correction signal required to implement feedback control. As the base robotic platform does not contain any provisions for the sensors, the students have the design freedom of deciding where and how the sensors are installed and they can use a variety of digital rapid prototyping machines (3D printers, laser cutters, etc.) available in SUTD to realize their designs. Once the sensors are mounted, the feedback controller needs to be programmed onto the microcontroller onboard the robotic platform. Again there are no pre-existing codes available, and students will need to program a strategy of using the sensor measurements to actively correct for the heading of the robotic platform so it follows the line. This in essence is the basic premise of a feedback controller.
  • Team based: Working effectively in teams and fostering collaborative spirit is an important skillset for aspiring engineers and with other assignments in the class graded individually, a team oriented design challenge would provide ample opportunities for students to hone their teamwork.


Design-Build-Fly Aerial Craft Design Workshop

Designettes are short, vignette-like, design experiences that teach through active, creative application of fundamental disciplinary concepts. These experiences are normally timed between 1 hour to 1 week to promote active learning of design and fundamental engineering principles. This project aims to continue research and exploration in the design, implementation and analysis of creative designettes to augment current teaching methods. Here, aviation themed revolutionary designettes which incorporates physics and mathematical skills acquiring in the classroom, exposure to computer aided design and digital manufacturing and infused with the thrill and excitement of flight to participants (pre-university students), are implemented. A unique feature of this designette is the integration of a competitive element where groups are tasked with competing with each other and this competitive element is used to further reinforce the learning cycle. One key design exercise in the workshop was collaborative sketching (C-Sketch) or also called 6-3-5. Some exemplary examples from the exercise can be found below.


SUTD Technology & Design Challenge

In SUTD, design plays a critical role in all aspects of the curriculum. It permeates in various academic projects and exhibitions and are normally non-competitive. The SUTD Technology & Design Challenge was conceived and organized with the goal of providing students an opportunity to hone and apply design tools and skills. In this challenge, students get together in random groups and compete against one another in a heads-up competition format to determine the winner. The key element of the challenge is that the task is not announced until the actual day and each group are given a generous but limited set of resources to develop their robotic solutions. It has ran during the SUTD Independent Activity Period (IAP) period and remains one of the most successful IAP programmes since.

Fostering creativity through a competitive environment provides a motivation that other design workshops, exhibitions and presentation do not provide. In addition, in a competitive environment, the element of strategy comes into play. Teams no longer compete independently and must consider opponents approaches and adjust their strategy accordingly. For a design competition over an extended period of time (2 weeks), strategies can evolve and such experiences are not present in traditional academic classes. The goal of these design-centric competition is to provide an avenue, without academic responsibilities (grading) to explore and apply design strategies in a competitive environment where students need to consider the strategies and approaches of rival teams.

2013 Edition: STAR WARS

2014 Edition: WORLD CUP

2016 Edition: OLYMPICS


International Design Contest (IDC): Robocon

The International Design Contest (IDC) Robocon competition has several benefits in creating a meaningful design experience for undergraduate engineering students and includes an international flavour as participants of the competition hail from all around the world. The problem posed to the contestants is to design, build and test mobile robots that are capable of accomplishing a task. A primary goal of the competition is to provide undergraduates with a meaningful design experience with an emphasis on mechanical design, electronic circuits and programming. It is hoped that by placing the emphasis on the design, the course will encourage more undergraduates to go into the field of engineering design. For the 2015 IDC Robocon (the 26th edition), a simulated space problem of cleaning the debris from orbit is proposed. Teams, comprising of students from multiple countries work together to develop robotic systems to compete with each other in collecting the foam balls and delivering them to the rotating the holder.


  1. N. Tan, R. E. Mohan, S. Foong, M. Yamakita, M. Iwase, S. Hatakeyama, N. Kamamichi, L. Song, Y. Wang and Q. Zhu, “IDC Robocon: A Transnational Teaming Competition for Project-Based Design Education in Undergraduate Robotics,” Robotics. 2016; 5(3):12, doi:10.3390/robotics5030012
  2. S. Foong, K. Subburaj and K. L. Wood, “An Inductive, Design-Centric Approach to Control Engineering Education with a Competitive Atmosphere,” 2017 ASME Dynamic Systems and Control Conference, Tysons, VA. doi: 10.1115/DSCC2017-5157