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Describing Student Design Behavior

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1997 Annual Conference


Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Publication Date

June 15, 1997

Start Date

June 15, 1997

End Date

June 18, 1997



Page Count


Page Numbers

2.129.1 - 2.129.13



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Paper Authors

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Justin R. Chimka

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Karen M. Bursic

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Cynthia Atman

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

Session 3230

Describing Student Design Behavior*

Justin R. Chimka, Cynthia J. Atman** , and Karen M. Bursic University of Pittsburgh


Open-ended design behavior can be characterized in part by the transitions a designer makes through steps in the design process. For example, a designer may define a problem, gather some information, develop several alternatives, then move back to reexamine the original problem definition before continuing with analysis. Each movement from step to step can be defined as a transition. Another way to describe design behavior is by the percentage of time spent in each of the design stages. These behaviors distinguish different types of processes that a designer might use. To study how engineering students approach and solve design problems, we collected data from seniors while they designed a playground for a fictional neighborhood. In this paper we will discuss the design behavior of these students by investigating the relationship between the percentage of time spent in various design stages, the number of transitions per unit time and how well the students were able to meet the constraints in the problem.


Design is a key element of any undergraduate engineering curriculum. Much has been written about the importance of teaching design effectively 1-5 and many authors have studied the design process 6-15. Curriculum changes in engineering are being made across the U.S. and many schools now introduce design in the freshman year 16-21.

The overall goal of these changes must be to ensure that graduating seniors can effectively approach and solve "real-world" open-ended engineering design problems. But, what is design? What steps are necessary in the design process? Many authors disagree. Walton 22 defines design in terms of what the professional engineer actually does. Thus he defines it as "the art of applying scientific theory and principles to the efficient conversion of natural resources for the benefit of humans, to satisfy their perceived needs and desires" (p. 24). Ullman 23 defines the design process "as a map for how to get from the need for a specific object to the final product " (p. 3) and notes that "The designer's knowledge of the process and the problem's domain determine the path" (p. 4). All engineers design, whether it be a factory layout, a new computer system, a major construction project, an improved production process, an electronic subassembly or a new material. It is the core of the engineering profession. Wright 24 notes that "engineering design is as varied as the engineering profession, and it is as broad as the problems facing humankind. An engineer's designs may be as small and intricate as a microchip for a computer system or as large and complex as a space shuttle" (p. 95).

* This research was made possible in part by National Science Foundation grant RED-9358516 as well as grants from the Ford Motor Company Fund, GE Fund, Lockheed Martin, Westinghouse Foundation, and Xerox Corporation. ** To whom all correspondences should be sent.

Chimka, J. R., & Bursic, K. M., & Atman, C. (1997, June), Describing Student Design Behavior Paper presented at 1997 Annual Conference, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 10.18260/1-2--6489

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