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An Exercise In Problem Definition In An Early Design Course

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2003 Annual Conference


Nashville, Tennessee

Publication Date

June 22, 2003

Start Date

June 22, 2003

End Date

June 25, 2003



Conference Session

Teaching Design with a Twist

Page Count


Page Numbers

8.196.1 - 8.196.8



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Paper Authors

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Richard Bannerot

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

Session 2653

An Exercise in Problem Definition in an Early Design Course

Richard Bannerot

University of Houston


Problem identification and definition is a necessary first step in the design process, but it is often overlooked in the rush to “get started” designing. The result of a complete problem identification process is a problem statement and the resulting specifications, as described in the paper, that define the problem in some detail. Without a good problem statement and/or a comprehensive set of specifications it is difficult, if not impossible, to generate an appropriate solution or, perhaps more importantly, to evaluate the solution. We have used exercises in specification development in both our freshman “Introduction to Mechanical Engineering” course and our sophomore design course. This paper will describe these exercises and provide an example.


“The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution…” -- Albert Einstein1

“The most critical step in the solution of a problem is the problem definition or formulation.” 2, 3, 4

“The starting point of most design projects is the identification by a client of a need to be met.” 5

The client’s statement of need must be refined in the problem definition in which 1) objectives are clarified, 2) user requirements are established, 3) constraints are identified, and 4) functions are established. These problem definitions are sometimes difficult to communicate to others because they often contain errors, show biases, and imply solutions.6 Engineering design involves more than simply generating solutions. In the process of engineering education, some attention should be paid to how a problem definition is formulated and how this formulation is accurately communicated to all participants: the client, the designer and the user.


Most of the limited time available for undergraduate engineering education is used to solve problems. However, some would argue that there is too much emphasis on solving well-posed, textbook problems. In an attempt to broaden problem-solving skills, open-ended (design)

Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2003, American Society for Engineering Education

Bannerot, R. (2003, June), An Exercise In Problem Definition In An Early Design Course Paper presented at 2003 Annual Conference, Nashville, Tennessee. 10.18260/1-2--12436

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