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Course Design Thinking: Navigating Tensions at the Intersection of Design Thinking and Engineering Course Design

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2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Baltimore , Maryland

Publication Date

June 25, 2023

Start Date

June 25, 2023

End Date

June 28, 2023

Conference Session

Design in Engineering Education Division (DEED) Technical Session 6

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education Division (DEED)

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Paper Authors


Nicholas D. Fila Iowa State University of Science and Technology

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Nicholas D. Fila is a research assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. He earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and a M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. His research interests include empathy, innovation, design thinking, course design, and engineering ethics.

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Diane T. Rover Iowa State University

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Diane Rover holds the title of University Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University (ISU). She also currently serves as the alliance director for the NSF Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska IINSPIRE LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation), co-leads projects in the department funded by NSF Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (RED) and Scholarships in STEM (S-STEM) programs, and is a co-PI of the NSF Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society led by the University of Missouri. Her teaching and research have focused on engineering education, high impact educational practices, inclusive educational practices, broader impacts of research, embedded computer systems, system level design, parallel and distributed systems, and performance analysis. Dr. Rover began her academic career at Michigan State University and has served in department and college administrative positions at MSU and ISU, including associate dean of engineering. She has engaged with many academic institutions and professional organizations, including community colleges, both U.S. and international universities, and various boards. She has served in various leadership roles within IEEE, ASEE and ABET. Dr. Rover is a Fellow of the IEEE and of ASEE.

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Henry Duwe Iowa State University of Science and Technology Orcid 16x16


Mani Mina Iowa State University of Science and Technology

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Mani Mina is with the department of Industrial Design and Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State University. He has been working on better understanding of students' learning and aspects of technological and engineering philosophy and literacy

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Phillip H. Jones III Iowa State University of Science and Technology

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Phillip H. Jones received his B.S. degree in 1999 and M.S. degree in 2002 in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He received his Ph.D. degree in 2008 in computer engineering from Washington University in St. Louis.

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In recent years, several researchers and educators have explored how design thinking might be applied to education design practices. These explorations have ranged from general use toolkits to theoretical framings to empirical investigations. While these explorations have advanced considerations of how the human-centered, inquisitive, iterative, generative, and multi-perspective nature of design thinking might inform and improve education design practice, it is also clear that design thinking, as it has been applied in other disciplines and contexts, can be met with resistance and struggles when applied to designing engineering courses. For example, a recent study suggested obstacles related to instructors’ mindsets, course design practices, departmental cultures, and constraints of course and curricular structures. This study seeks to further understand the intersection between design thinking and engineering course design by investigating two research questions:

1. What tensions are experienced by engineering educators attempting to apply design thinking to the redesign of two courses in the second and third year of an undergraduate electrical and computer engineering program? 2. How do these tensions inform the application of design thinking in an engineering course design context?

We utilized a collaborative inquiry approach to address the two research questions. Five engineering faculty members who had served on two course design teams participated in this collaborative inquiry. Each team was facilitated by a design expert who worked with the teams to utilize a process that met instructor needs while retaining key human-centered, problem-oriented, generative, iterative, and diverse aspects of design thinking. Teams also consisted of course instructors and additional faculty, staff, and students who provided additional perspectives on student experience, content, and other education aspects. We, the collaborative inquiry participants applied a four-stage process to address the two research questions: (1) we engaged in an open-ended series of individual reflections and group discussions regarding the teams’ processes and application of design thinking, (2) one participant synthesized the discussions into a set of tensions and a collective framing of design thinking in engineering course design, (3) we further engaged in a series of individual reflections and group discussions in response to the synthesis, and (4) we collectively revised the tensions and framing of “course design thinking” to reflective collective agreements and individual nuances.

Intermediate results suggest several key tensions experienced by engineering educators when attempting to apply design thinking to course design. These include: (1) resolving extant practices and mindsets with design thinking practices and mindsets, (2) desire to take ownership of process while worrying about ability without facilitation, (3) discomfort with nature of design thinking vs. belief in opportunities it provides, and (4) burgeoning interest and ability set against concerns about buy-in from department and colleagues. Collectively, these tensions informed a framing of design thinking that includes extant themes such as empathy for users and applying generative, visual practices, but reframes these themes to better align with engineering educators’ practices, mindsets, and contexts. In the paper, we will report on the new “course design thinking” framing, elaborate on the identified tensions, and discuss implications for engineering course design practice.

Fila, N. D., & Rover, D. T., & Duwe, H., & Mina, M., & Jones, P. H. (2023, June), Course Design Thinking: Navigating Tensions at the Intersection of Design Thinking and Engineering Course Design Paper presented at 2023 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Baltimore , Maryland. 10.18260/1-2--42773

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