Sean Maw's class explores Aboriginal aspects of design and engineering

Aboriginal design in engineering

When it comes to technology, engineering professor Sean Maw believes high tech is not always good tech.


Case in point: the travois, a triangular device made out of long sticks or branches and fitted onto an animal, was constructed by First Nations people on the Prairies to lug large loads over land. Think of it as a precursor to a sleigh. While fairly straightfor­ward in design and purpose, it was an important tool that made life easier for those who used it— the underlying goal for any piece of technology.

Last year, the simple travois made its way into Maw's first-year course in engineering design concepts and techniques. "One of the things we do is analyze designs to see if they're good or effective," explained Maw, who is also the Jerry G. Huff Chair in Innovative Teaching in the College of Engineering. "Why are they good? How good are they? What's good about them? There's a lot of good there, and it's not always acknowledged."

As technology evolves and get more complex, it seems impractical to analyze such an ancient artifact. But it can be quite involving, explained Maw, and asking questions about its purpose and practicality teaches students how to analyze anything from a modern stand­point.

"What happens if you spread the sticks further apart? Or if you use a taller animal? What if you move the load farther down?" All these situations, he said, can affect the intended usefulness of the device.

Additionally, while students take classes in statics and dynamics (objects at rest and in motion, respectively), they often have little opportunity to put that theoretical knowledge to use. "They do the course­work but don't ever use it again. They're struggling to remember what they're supposed to do in a situation.

"So here's a thing you drag along—analyze that!" he said with a laugh.

The travois is a great example of design, and its inte­gration into the course was seamless, said Maw.

Aboriginal watercrafts, a long-time interest of Maw's which he hopes to integrate into the course, is another good way to illustrate key design charac­teristics and learning concepts. The designs, he explained, were all good yet served different purposes based on their location. Moreover, Maw continued, the cultural significance was incor­porated into the designs, much in the same way classes of auto­mobiles are categorized now.

Canoes in Ontario and Quebec, for example, were well-constructed for heavy-duty use, "like a work truck." Similarly, Arctic kayaks "were an extension of the person" and played a significant role in hunting operations, said Maw. Watercrafts found on the west coast required more time and skill to create; these Cadillacs of boats "were the pride of the community."

However, the boats used on the Prairies to cross rivers were flimsy and of a lower-status. "They were very menial and not well-respected—basically disposable boats," he said. But they did not need to be better than that, because "the fact that you could make one in about 20 minutes was an asset. You build it, cross the river, then keep walking. You wouldn't take your Cadillac across the river and then just leave it."

Underlying the majority of First Nations artifacts is an implicit theme of sustain­ability—made of local materials, maintainable and recyclable. "They naturally had good designs in terms of what they were doing," said Maw. "I think it's worth pointing that out because we can learn from that."

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