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Designing a Big Machine: A Description and Assessment of a Mechanical Engineering Design Project

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

1st and 2nd Year Instruction in Design

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Irene B. Mena University of Pittsburgh

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Irene B. Mena has a B.S. and M.S. in industrial engineering, and a Ph.D. in engineering education. Her research interests include first-year engineering and graduate student professional development.

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William W. Clark University of Pittsburgh Orcid 16x16

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Ellen M. Moe

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The Introduction to Mechanical Engineering Design course at University X is piloting a design project in which students in the two course sections design and build what the instructors are referring to as a “big machine”. The big machine is similar to a Rube Goldberg machine: it consists of many parts and components working together to ultimately complete a task. Previously, students in this design course completed a design project that emphasized user-centered design. Using the design process and user discovery, they designed a product that would directly meet users’ needs. This design project is still part of the course, but the big machine has now been incorporated as a second design project so that students also get experience designing with the goal of fitting into a larger system. With this project, the emphasis is no longer solely on the end user, but also on making sure that their designs meet the constraints and requirements of the system.

In the big machine project, the instructional team outlined the path the machine should follow, encompassing three floors of the engineering building. The path was divided into sections of approximately 10 feet each. Each team of 4-5 students (a total of 58 teams) was assigned a section and asked to define their input requirements (in other words, what input from the preceding segment of the machine will initiate action on their segment of the machine?). Their input requirements were then submitted to the preceding team, to be used to design their segment’s output. Teams had to use the design process to design their segments such that their inputs and outputs would align with the preceding and the following teams’ segments, thus creating the big machine. Teams also had to demonstrate creativity with the design of their segments, and follow additional constraints outlined by the instructional team. These constraints are included in more detail in the paper.

The purpose of our study is to describe the project and assess how well it worked, both in terms of implementation and in terms of student outcomes. Specifically, this paper will: (1) describe the process of creating and implementing this project, (2) describe the specific design skills this project aims to address, (3) describe what worked well with this project, and identify areas for improvement for future semesters, (4) provide recommendations for other faculty interested in implementing a similar project, and (5) summarize students’ perceptions of the activity, as well as their perceptions of the knowledge and professional skills developed, based on their responses to a survey.

Mena, I. B., & Clark, W. W., & Moe, E. M. (2016, June), Designing a Big Machine: A Description and Assessment of a Mechanical Engineering Design Project Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26695

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