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An Application Of Protocol Analysis To The Engineering Design Process

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1996 Annual Conference


Washington, District of Columbia

Publication Date

June 23, 1996

Start Date

June 23, 1996

End Date

June 26, 1996



Page Count


Page Numbers

1.61.1 - 1.61.10



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Paper Authors

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Stefanie L. Lozito

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Karen M. Bursic

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Cynthia Atman

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2530

l An Application of Protocol Analysis to the Engineering Design Process

Cynthia J. Atman, Karen M. Bursic, and Stefanie L. Lozito University of Pittsburgh


The objective of this paper is to demonstrate verbal protocol analysis as a method to document and analyze how students approach open-ended engineering design problems. As part of a larger effort to study how engineering students solve design problems, freshmen and senior engineering students were asked to design a playground for a fictional neighborhood. This paper will demonstrate the use of the verbal protocol method as shown by an in-depth analysis of one of the subjects from this study. The type of data that can be obtained and the various questions that can be answered using verbal protocol analysis will be discussed. This research methodology can be a very valuable tool to assess how engineering students approach open-ended design problems. This information is vital to engineering faculty who must teach the design process to freshmen.


Design is a key element of the engineering discipline. In recent years there have been numerous calls for improvement in engineering education, including the teaching of design. Industry and academic panels, university coalitions, and individual researchers have studied engineering education curricula and made many recommendations for engineering educators (1-4). As a result, undergraduate engineering education in the United States has undergone many changes in response to criticism about the ability of graduating engineers to succeed in the “real world”. As part of these changes, many engineering schools are introducing design early in a student’s curriculum - as early as the freshmen year (5-7). A review of the proceedings from the 1995 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference (Anaheim, CA; June, 1995) and the IEEE and ASEE jointly sponsored Frontiers in Education Conference (Atlanta, GA; November, 1995) confirms that changes are well underway.

Before we can fully develop and implement more effective strategies to teach design, it is vital that we understand how students approach open-ended engineering design problems. Assessment of how engineers solve problems is a challenging task. This type of analysis can be very difficult and time consuming. One research method, known as verbal protocol analysis, is particularly useful for accomplishing this type of task.

Verbal protocol analysis requires subjects to think aloud as they perform a task while being audio and/or video treed. TaDes are then transcribed, se~mented, coded, and analyzed. Se~mentin~ involves dividing the transcri~ts into ~odable units of texts. Codfig usually requ~es a pre-~efined c~ding sc~eme. This meth~d provides a systematic way to analyze the content of what a subject says as he or she performs a task@).

Verbal protocol analysis has been used extensively in research on learning. It has also been used in reading research to gain insight into what a reader understands from written text @j. Ericsson and Simon

1 This research was made possible by National Science Foundation grant RED-9358516 aJ well aJ grants from the Ford Motor Company Fund, GE Fund, and Westinghouse Foundation.

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Lozito, S. L., & Bursic, K. M., & Atman, C. (1996, June), An Application Of Protocol Analysis To The Engineering Design Process Paper presented at 1996 Annual Conference, Washington, District of Columbia. 10.18260/1-2--5888

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