June 23, 2013
June 23, 2013
June 26, 2013
Design in Engineering Education
23.153.1 - 23.153.11
An assessment of student needs in project-based mechanical design coursesIn response to a perceived lack of practical design experience for students, many universitieshave begun introducing new project-based courses into the curriculum. However, despite thegrowing recognition of its importance in engineering education, there is still little agreementover how best to teach design. Studies of expert performance suggest that successful designrequires both domain-specific knowledge, which refers to knowledge of topics such asmechanics, standard machine elements, and material selection, and general processknowledge, which refers to domain-independent knowledge related to the management of thedesign process. The range of knowledge required and the open-ended nature of designprojects present challenges in monitoring and supporting student learning.This paper describes a series of studies aimed at identifying the pedagogical needs of studentsin project-based design courses so that educational environments and resources can bedeveloped to meet these needs. The studies were conducted at two institutions, HarvardUniversity and Trinity College Dublin. A series of questionnaires was used to identify thedifficulties faced by student teams working on mechanical design projects, and the resourcesthey felt were needed to support their learning. A teaching assistant on the courses conductedparticipant observation studies and informal interviews to expand upon the results of thequestionnaires. A range of conceptual and practical difficulties was identified, associatedwith the two knowledge types required in design. Difficulties associated with general processknowledge included defining the problem to be solved, evaluating and integratinginformation, and tolerating uncertainty in the design process. Difficulties associated withdomain-specific knowledge included evaluating the feasibility of potential solutions, makingassumptions and estimates so that physical systems could be modeled and analyzed, anddesigning for manufacturability.These results provide suggestions for the development of course content to best meet theneeds of students. A better high-level understanding of the design process is essential forstudents to solve ill-structured problems when the information available is ambiguous.Design requires skills related to approximation and first-order analysis that are oftenneglected in engineering education in favor of sophisticated analysis techniques for precisecalculation. Unlike engineering science courses, in which knowledge is structured aroundfundamental physics principles, problem-solving in design is highly context-dependent, andstudents therefore require access to information on a wide range of specific solutions. Thepaper concludes with some suggestions for the types of activities and resources that couldhelp meet these needs.
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