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Blending Sustainable Design, Systems Thinking, and Engineering Science Concepts in an Introductory Engineering Course

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

FPD 9: First-Year Engineering Courses, Part III: Research, Sustainability, and Professionalism

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.246.1 - 23.246.16

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Paper Authors


Robert L. Nagel James Madison University

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Dr. Robert Nagel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering at James Madison University. Dr. Nagel joined the James Madison University after completing his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Oregon State University. He has a B.S. from Tri-State University (now Trine University) and a M.S. from the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology), both in mechanical engineering. Dr. Nagel has performed research with the United States Army Chemical Corps, General Motors Research and Development Center, and the United States Air Force Academy. His research interests are in the area of conceptual design and engineering design education. Specifically, Dr. Nagel’s research activities include understanding customer needs, the use functional and process modeling to understand design problems, design for sustainability, and design for accessibility.

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Kyle G. Gipson James Madison University

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Jonathan Howard Spindel James Madison University


Elise M. Barrella James Madison University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Elise M. Barrella is an Assistant Professor of Engineering at James Madison University, focusing on transportation systems and sustainability. Prior to joining the JMU Engineering faculty in 2012, Dr. Barrella was at Georgia Tech completing her Ph.D. research as part of the Infrastructure Research Group (IRG). She also completed a teaching certificate and was actively involved with the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Georgia Tech. Her academic interests focus on two primary areas of sustainable transportation: (1) community-based design and planning and (2) strategic planning and policy development. Dr. Barrella is also interested in investigating how to best integrate these research interests into classroom and project experiences for her students.

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Blending Sustainable Design, Systems Thinking, and Engineering Science Concepts in an Introductory Engineering CourseOur relatively new engineering program has been designed based on the Engineer of 2020. Totrain this engineer, the program blends engineering science fundamentals with sustainableengineering design and systems thinking while maintaining the university wide liberal arts core.This program, which has recently completed its fourth year, emphasizes problem based learningthroughout the curriculum and provides students with hands-on design opportunities during allfour academic years. Our goal is to expose students to their future role as global engineers wherethey will be required to balance impacts associated with the four pillars of sustainability—economic, environmental, technical, and societal—to create safe and sustainable designs.As our first graduating class became seniors, we recognized that we could improve on theirability to discover and understand their identity as the Engineer of 2020. Consequently, webecame aware of the need to revamp the introduction to engineering course. While the initialcourse focused on developing strong analytical skills, creativity, communication, strong sense ofprofessionalism, and versatility—all skills of the Engineer of 2020—the offering of the courselacked integration. This paper represents our initial efforts in formulating this integration.The introduction to Engineering course is laid out in modules: Engineering Science (ES),Engineering Design Process (EDP), and Pillars of Sustainability (PS). Students begin in the ESmodule learning initially about the engineering profession and foundational elements ofengineering analysis. The common theme through the ES module is the flow of materials andenergy whether in mechanical, electrical, or chemical systems. Students follow the theme offlow as the course transitions into the EDP module. During the EDP module, students reverseengineer an electromechanical product studying how electrical energy stored in battery isconverted to mechanical energy through the lens of customer needs to functional attributes. Thesecond portion of the EDP module exposes the students to basic hand tool operation through aproject that requires students to perform fundamental engineering analysis. Following the EDPmodule, students transition into the PS module where they are introduced to the idea of life cyclethinking. Students are taught to consider the entire product life as a complex dynamic systemthat begins with material extraction and ends with disposal and/or material recovery. This isreinforced by the team project focusing on the flow of material and energy in a transportationsystem. The course culminates with the integration of ES, EDP, and PS into a single projectwhere students are instructed to produce a physical prototype based on a customer designsolicitation. Students are required to develop multiple designs; evaluate trade-offs between eachdesign; justify decisions using engineering science calculations; develop computer aided modelsof the selected design; construct a physical prototype; and test and refine their design prototype.Following testing and refinement, students sell their designs during a formal presentation andsubmit a formal design report.In this paper, we will provide the mappings between topics covered in the introduction toengineering course and the other courses in the engineering curriculum. Mappings are beneficialto demonstrate how the introduction to engineering course captures the essence of our integratedengineering program based on the Engineer of 2020. We will provide data related to courselearning outcomes, and the paper will conclude with a reflection on the lessons learned.

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2013 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015