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Building Informed Designers with Engineering Problem Framing Tools

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2021 First-Year Engineering Experience



Publication Date

August 9, 2021

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August 9, 2021

End Date

August 21, 2021

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Todd France Ohio Northern University

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Todd France is the director of Ohio Northern University's Engineering Education program, which strives to prepare engineering educators for grades 7-12. Dr. France also helps coordinate the first-year engineering experience at ONU. He earned his PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder in Architectural Engineering, and conducted research in K-12 engineering education and project-based learning.

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J. Blake Hylton Ohio Northern University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Hylton is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Coordinator of the First-Year Engineering experience for the T.J. Smull College of Engineering at Ohio Northern University. He previously completed his graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University, where he conducted research in both the School of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Engineering Education. Prior to Purdue, he completed his undergraduate work at the University of Tulsa, also in Mechanical Engineering. He currently teaches first-year engineering courses as well as various courses in Mechanical Engineering, primarily in the mechanics area. His pedagogical research areas include standards-based assessment and curriculum design, including the incorporation of entrepreneurial thinking into the engineering curriculum and especially as pertains to First-Year Engineering.

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Patrick James Herak The Ohio State University

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Dr. Herak is a five time graduate of The Ohio State University: BSE (Science Education), MS (Env Sci), MS (Civil Eng), MA (Foreign, Second, and Multilingual Education) and PhD (STEM Education). As an undergrad he was a member of The Ohio State University Marching Band for 5-years and can still be found playing with the TBDBITL Alumni Band.

While at university, Dr. Herak had several jobs including as a lab assistant (in Science Education, Mechanical Engineering and Entomology) as well as a GTA (in Science Education and the first-year Engineering Program). He also worked for 4-summers on the show staff for the Columbus Zoo, training various species of birds and other animals.

Dr. Herak was a secondary science teacher for 18-years, primarily for Westerville City Schools. However, he did take a leave of absence to teach at Aldenham School near London (UK). Dr. Herak has served as an adjunct professor at Central Ohio Technical College (Environmental Science) and adjunct professor position at Ashland University - Columbus Branch (Science Education), a position he still currently holds. Dr. Herak currently serves as a Senior Lecturer in the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University.

Dr. Herak has presented at education conferences at the state, national and international level including the Science Education Council of Ohio, National Science Teachers Association, International Consortium of Research in Science and Math Education, First Year Engineering Education conference and American Society for Engineering Education conference.

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Sherri Youssef The Ohio State University

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Sherri Youssef is pursuing her Masters of Science degree in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and is involved in the Department of Engineering Education as a Graduate Teaching and Research Associate at The Ohio State University. She completed her Bachelors of Science in Materials Science and Engineering at The Ohio State University as well in May of 2018.

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In introductory engineering courses, both at the high school and college levels, instructors often rely on a design process framework to guide students through contextualized projects. With a tendency to immediately embark on ideating potential design solutions, coupled with the prominence of “making” as a means to capture the interest of novice designers, students may skim through (or completely ignore) the initial phase of design – fully defining the problem to address.

In this workshop, presenters will provide tools to help instructors guide burgeoning engineering students through the oft-overlooked “problem framing” phase of design. Problem framing encapsulates a number of critical aspects of design, including the identification of a) a need or opportunity, b) stakeholders, including direct users, who can influence key design decisions, c) a deliverable’s form and function, d) information to gather to more comprehensively understand the problem, e) design constraints which limit design options, and f) metrics that will allow for potential design solutions to be evaluated for quality.

As part of a multi-year investigation within a diverse school district that supports multiple high schools (including traditional and engineering-focused programs), the presenters have generated problem-framing support tools. These tools, and their accompanying activities, will be disseminated at the workshop for those interested in improving students’ practices from “beginning designers” to “informed designers,” as defined by Crismond and Adams [1].

Intended Audience

While intended for instructors of first-year engineering design courses, the workshop can provide a framework for any educator employing a design process as part of a class project. The presented materials can benefit those who currently facilitate, or are interested in facilitating, open-ended projects that necessitate problem identification and/or opportunity recognition at the outset, but may be challenged to do so by any of the following obstacles: - Students electing to pursue identical/similar design solutions in an open-ended project (i.e., lack of creativity) - Students generating design solutions that do not address the most critical aspects of a problem (e.g., “fun” projects that do not actually serve a purpose) - Students failing to take into consideration the viewpoints of all of those affected by an issue (i.e., lack of empathy) - Students presenting solutions without justification for design decisions and/or without a clear method for evaluating the quality of their own projects (e.g., no basis for comparison)

In addition, educators with research interests in the high school / college engineering threshold are encouraged to attend. The presented project affords a viewpoint of this critical juncture of the engineering career pathway, when students are first introduced to the design process. Student sample work will demonstrate separation across a spectrum of students with and without engineering course experience, shedding light on opportunities to better align introductory coursework with professional engineering viewpoints. Constructive feedback for the presenters on the problem-framing tools and activities is highly encouraged.

Provided Materials

Presenters will facilitate an abbreviated version of a multi-day classroom intervention designed to systematically break down key components of the problem framing process. Attendees will be tasked with participating in activities to identify stakeholders’ impacts and the ensuing research that would further inform future design decisions. Attendees will also be asked to complete three problem-framing tools (detailed below), and will receive these tools and supporting activity instructions for use in their own classrooms.

Need Identification Canvas

This four-step worksheet compels students to explicitly recognize all individuals and groups WHO may be impacted under a given scenario. After indicating HOW each is impacted, students compose a “need statement” to identify a broad deliverable – including the deliverable’s form and function – and the intended direct user(s). Finally, students reflect back on WHAT information must be gathered to more fully inform their decisions moving forward, and connect these discrete pieces of information back to the stakeholders they originally identified. This cyclical canvas allows students to revisit their initial choices, recognizing knowledge gaps and focusing on stakeholder needs as they iterate through the canvas.

Specification Source Model

Largely adopted from the Constraint Source Model [2], this tool was designed to elicit deeper consideration of various facets influencing a design project. For a given scenario, students are expected to judge the broader implications with respect to areas such as environmental concerns, maintainability, and ergonomics. This directed reflection is intended to compel students to take a more empathetic view of their project with respect to stakeholder needs, and can reveal key design aspects that may have otherwise been overlooked.

Design Specification Canvas

After students have developed their need statements and taken a broad view of the issue at hand, the design specification canvas serves as a guide to flesh out key attributes of a design that should be taken into account and the methods by which these attributes could be measured (e.g., capacity, durability, efficiency, etc.). Contemplating these measured quantities before generating possible solutions provides guidance for future recognition of viable option (via constraints) and decision-making among various options (via evaluation metrics). Developing design specifications thus allows students to better justify their solution pathway during and at the conclusion of a design process. Workshop Timeline

The workshop is intended to serve as a mutually-beneficial session for attendees to gain insight into novice designers’ approaches towards problem framing and to receive immediately deployable tools and activities, while presenters hope to gain feedback on the project. Furthermore, sample student work will be presented, allowing for discussion of common student strengths and oversights, as well as an opportunity to test the evaluation rubric developed to evaluate the quality of students’ work. The anticipated workshop timeline is shown below in Table 1.

Table 1. Anticipated Workshop Timeline

Topic Purpose Duration Problem Framing Overview Establish importance of proper problem framing in engineering design 5 min Need Identification Canvas Tool to guide students towards a “need statement” by drawing connections among opportunities and stakeholders; points students towards necessary information to gather 15 min Identifying Stakeholders Needfinding Information Gathering Card sorting activities to promote discussions about addressing stakeholders’ needs 15 min Specification Source Model Tool to elicit considerations about design limitations and methods of evaluation 15 min Design Specification Canvas Tool to identify project constraints and evaluations metrics 15 min Sample Student Work Opportunity to evaluate novice designers’ problem-framing abilities; allows for feedback on rubric 15 min Problem Framing Discussion Opportunity for attendees to provide feedback on project and discuss deployment in their own classrooms 10 min


[1] D. P. Crismond and R. S. Adams, “The informed design teaching and learning matrix.” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 101.4, pp. 738-797, 2012. [2] J. Estell and J. B. Hylton, “Incorporating the Constraint-Source Model into the First-Year Design Experience,” in First-Year Engineering Experience Conference, Daytona Beach, FL, USA, August 6-8, 2017.

France, T., & Hylton, J. B., & Herak, P. J., & Youssef, S. (2021, August), Building Informed Designers with Engineering Problem Framing Tools Paper presented at 2021 First-Year Engineering Experience, Virtual .

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