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Communication Among Undergraduate Engineers on a Self-directed Team During a Product Decision Meeting

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Mechanical Engineering Capstone Design

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.364.1 - 26.364.25



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Paper Authors


Jared David Berezin Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Jared Berezin is a Lecturer in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication (WRAP) team within the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Jared teaches in a range of communication-intensive courses at MIT, including Product Engineering Processes, Computer Systems Engineering, Managerial Psychology, and Science Writing for the Public. He has also been a science writer for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and has worked as a journalist covering technology and the arts. Jared earned a BA in English and creative writing from Colby College, and an MA in literature from Boston College.

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Jane Kokernak Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Rhetorical Practices of Idea Advocacy and Collective Decision Making by Undergraduate Engineers on Student Design TeamsIn the XXX University mechanical engineering capstone course, students work in design teamsto propose ideas for new products, select a few for development and testing, and ultimatelychoose one, as a team, to build and test as an alpha prototype. While the team project exists inmany engineering capstone courses, XXX University’s course is unique in that individualstudent teams are atypically large, comprising 18-25 students. Moreover, teams are nearautonomous—students lead their own team meetings, during which they discuss work tasks,report progress, and make design decisions. Engineering and communication instructors arepresent but have an observational and advisory role. In team meetings, students draw on theirown experience as communicators and receive little explicit instruction on effectivecommunication for decisions, such as how to deliver statements of preference, opinion, fact,concern, and analysis; pose questions to teammates and instructors; and describe design sketches.While teams of approximately 20 undergraduate students with a high degree of autonomy overinternal team operations and decision-making might seem ripe for internal fragmentation andindecisiveness, these atypically large teams ultimately choose single products to pursue, andsuccessfully develop working prototypes, with a few team members occasionally forming theirown startup companies. Although we have noticed the success of these large student teams, wehave not studied specific factors, such as communication practices, that contribute to theeffective design process.In this study we seek to observe and understand the specific role of communication in theproduct design process of two separate teams. Our naturalistic study will qualitatively andquantitatively examine the respective team members’ communication behavior and rhetoricalchoices during two pivotal team decision-making events: 1) a three-hour lab meeting in which all24 team members, who had previously been working on different products in sub-teams,collectively decide on one product to iterate and build; and 2) a technical decision makingmeeting, in which students choose the final design direction for an alpha prototype. Ascommunication instructors embedded in these teams, we will audio record the meetings in orderto observe, analyze, and characterize students’ spoken communication, and collect materials,such as sketches and models, that students may use as illustration or evidence. We will alsointerview a subset of students after the first recorded meeting to elicit their reflection on theirown and their peers’ communication choices. By studying how engineering studentscommunicate and advocate for ideas to their peers during critical decision-making moments, ourfindings aim to increase knowledge about large team practices in design education, in order tohelp educators better understand students’ approaches to communication and improve teamcommunication pedagogy in the field of engineering.

Berezin, J. D., & Kokernak, J. (2015, June), Communication Among Undergraduate Engineers on a Self-directed Team During a Product Decision Meeting Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23703

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