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Building Better Mousetrap Builders: Courses To Incrementally And Systematically Teach Design

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1998 Annual Conference


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 28, 1998

Start Date

June 28, 1998

End Date

July 1, 1998



Page Count


Page Numbers

3.129.1 - 3.129.21



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Paper Authors

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Michael D. Murphy

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Kristen L. Wood

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Kevin Otto

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Joseph Bezdek

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Daniel Jensen

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

Session 2666

Building Better Mousetrap Builders: Courses to Incrementally and Systematically Teach Design Kevin Otto Kristin Wood & Joseph Bezdek Michael Murphy & Daniel Jensen MIT The University of Texas United States Air Force Academy Dept. of Mech. Engr. Dept. of Mechanical Engr. Dept. of Engr. Mechanics Cambridge, MA 02139 Austin, TX 78712 USAF Academy, CO, 80840

Abstract A variety of design-process and design-methods courses exist in engineering education. The primary objective of such courses is to teach engineering design fundamentals utilizing repeatable design techniques. By so doing, students obtain (1) tools they may employ during their education, (2) design experiences to understand the “big picture” of engineering, and (3) proven methods to attack open-ended problems. While these skills are worthwhile, especially as design courses are moved earlier in curricula, many students report that design methods are typically taught at a high-level and in a compartmentalized fashion. Often, the students’ courses do not include opportunities to obtain incremental concrete experiences with the methods. Nor do such courses allow for suitable observation and reflection as the methods are executed. In this paper, we describe a new approach for teaching design methods which addresses these issues. This approach incorporates hands-on experiences through the use of “reverse-engineering” projects. As the fundamentals of design techniques are presented, students immediately apply the methods to actual, existing products. They are able to hold these products physically in their hands, dissect them, perform experiments on their components, and evolve them into new successful creations. Based on this reverse-engineering concept, we have developed and tested new courses at The University of Texas, MIT, and the United States Air Force Academy. In the body of this paper, we present the structure of these courses, an example of our teaching approach, and a brief evaluation of the results.

1 Introduction In all of the material that is considered to comprise an engineering education, no subject is more enigmatic than design. Indeed, the very term “design” defies a common definition amongst engineering educators. Some represent it as a “creative, intuitive, iterative, innovative, unpredictable” [8] process, a “compound of art and science” [1], that by its very nature cannot be fully described or explained. Others, eschewing such a nebulous definition, choose to think of it as a method of solving open-ended problems that is “a sub-set of the decision-making process in general” [18]. Despite the varied definitions, however, virtually everyone acknowledges the unique nature of “designing” and agrees that “design,” above all else, defines the difference between an engineering education and a science education [16]. Design, however we define it, represents the bridge between theory and reality. It is the process by which our ideas enter and influence the world around us. In short, “designing” distinguishes us as engineers.

Considering the variance in its very definition, it comes as no surprise that little agreement exists over how to teach design to undergraduate engineering students. Yet we must.

Murphy, M. D., & Wood, K. L., & Otto, K., & Bezdek, J., & Jensen, D. (1998, June), Building Better Mousetrap Builders: Courses To Incrementally And Systematically Teach Design Paper presented at 1998 Annual Conference, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/1-2--6948

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