Engineering Education Goes Digital with World Wide Web Database

As published in Civil Engineering Magazine, January 1996, pp 16 - 18.

If Columbia University professor Anthony Webster has his way, architecture and civil engineering classrooms won't be black-board-equipped for long. Columbia's Architectural Anatomy Database (at the address is a set of hypermedia documents written for the World Wide Web. Students at the university access the database by using a high-speed T1 connection, which facilitates the transfer of vast amounts of graphic data such as animated fly-throughs and construction documents. The database's presentation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House makes extensive use of the Web browser Netscape, allowing users who have software programs like AutoCAD resident on their computers-as do the Indy worksataions from Silicon Graphics, Mountain View, Calif., that architecture and engineering students at Columbia use - to launch these applications and illustrate particular aspects of a prject. In addition to critical essays and construction documents, the Farnsworth module includes an introductory animated fly-through, a thermal analysis of the building enclosure system, and three-dimensional modes analogous to the axonometric drawings present for the PATCenter by Richard Rogers and Partners. A structural analysis based on the program STAAD (by Research Engineers, Inc., Yorba Linda, Calif.) is included, as is animation showing the relationship between the building's visually perceived space and the structural components supporting it, load trasnfer among these components, and the way these loads cause them to deflect.

Right now, about 80 Columbia architecture and engineering students are using Webster's networked multimedia volumes in classes, and he is helpng orchestrate a major expansion for next year. Develpment costs for the Farnsworth portion of the project ran around $30,000, which includes complete Powerpoint and Showcase versions for classroom use on PCs and Silicon Graphics computers, as well as a complete Netscape version running on the Internet from PCs, Apple Macintoshes or Unix-based machines. Webster plans to expand the project by develpoing a comprehensive interdisciplinary multimedia analysis of major American post-World War II covered stadiums as well as unusual, innovative small buildings like the Farnsworth House and the PATCenter.

Image courtesy Weidlinger Assoc.

So far the project has received funding from the National Science Foundation's Gateway Engineering Coalition, the National Endowment for the ARts and the Columbia provost's Strategic Initiative Fund. The system is also being used on an experimental basis at Drexel University and Ohio State University. According to Webser, director of building technologies at Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, the program will expand to encompass International Services Digital Network videoconferencing next spring. Via this real-time conferencing system, students in Webster's class exploring the engineering aspects of the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 70 will benefit from having Bill Spillers, chairman of the civil engineering department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and an expert in lightweight, long-spand pneumatic structures, "in the class and participating in our discussion of the building,: Webster says. Spillers will also provide a Larsa-based nonlinear analysis of the roof on the Internet site.

Image courtesy Davis-Brody

"This is the greatest thing since sliced bread," exclaims Webster, tongue firmly in cheek, "To me, the prject is very significant because its digital tool set allows building-science students and scholars to learn a variety of interdisciplary information much more quickly than they could by relying on traditional media."