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Define “Engineering Design”: Understanding how freshman students develop their understanding of engineering, design, and engineering design

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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

Design Methodology and Evaluation 2

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.365.1 - 23.365.24

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Paper Authors

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Alan Chong University of Toronto

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Jason A. Foster University of Toronto

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Patricia Kristine Sheridan University of Toronto


Robert Irish University of Toronto

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Senior Lecturer in Engineering Communication

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Define “Engineering Design”: Understanding how freshman students develop their understanding of engineering, design, and engineering designFreshman engineering students often begin their studies with limited, imprecise, and minimallyinformed conceptions of engineering, design, and engineering design. Their beliefs aboutengineering design are usually based only the most tangible and traditional results of engineeringdesign activities, such as consumer products, civic structures, or software applications. Manyintroductory engineering design courses and resources begin by defining “engineering design”,as a basis for further activities. Although many authoritative textbook definitions for“engineering design” exist, these formalisms have two central issues. First, though carefullyconstructed, they are still “just words” and are far removed from the lived experience offreshman students. As such, students have difficulty engaging with the subtleties embedded inthe definitions, and often only grasp the most basic or surface aspects of the concept. Second,they offer a simple, authoritative response to defining a term and activity that at a minimumvaries by discipline and in practice is fluid and dynamic, changing alongside the social andcultural expectations and responsibilities of engineers and designers.Our research has two main investigative purposes. The first is to assess incoming engineeringstudents’ understanding of both the composite term “engineering design” and it’s constituentterms ‘engineering’ and ‘design’. The second goal is to probe the efficacy of an activity,developed for a freshman engineering design course, that is intended to deepen and enrichstudents’ understanding of these terms. The study protocol asks that the students submit adefinition of “Engineering Design” twice, first prior to their first tutorial and then immediatelyafter. In the tutorial students engage in a series of activities which prompt them to debate, amongthemselves and with their instructors, on what does and does not constitute “engineering design”,to what degree, and embodying what characteristics? They are also prompted to explore theconstituent terms “engineering” and “design” . The prompting is accomplished primarilybyhaving the students categorize artifacts as “works of engineering design” and then defend theircategorizations to their peers and instructors. The activity starts with simply binary distinctions -yes or no - and moves toward a more complex categorization of objects along separate axes of‘engineering’ and ‘design’. Applying discourse analysis techniques to their pre and post-activity definitions allows us to explore the impact of the exercise on the students’ understandingof and engagement with the concept of “engineering design,”; semi-structured student interviewshelp to identify those aspects of the activity with the most significant impact on theirunderstanding.

Chong, A., & Foster, J. A., & Sheridan, P. K., & Irish, R. (2013, June), Define “Engineering Design”: Understanding how freshman students develop their understanding of engineering, design, and engineering design Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.

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