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Gamification as a Strategy for Promoting Deeper Investigation in a Reverse Engineering Activity

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Design Cognition I

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.662.1 - 25.662.15



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Paper Authors


Jason A. Foster University of Toronto

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Jason Foster is the Senior Lecturer in engineering design education within the Division of Engineering Science at the University of Toronto. Trained as a Systems Design Engineer and with industry experience in software development and management consulting, he currently teaches engineering design at the corner- and capstone levels. His research focus in on scaling innovative engineering pedagogies to suit large classes, and his teaching integrates the theories of Vygotsky, Kolb, Papert, Perry, and Pugh.

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Patricia Kristine Sheridan University of Toronto

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Patricia Kristine Sheridan is a Ph.D. candidate with the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering at the University of Toronto. She holds a B.A.Sc. and M.A.Sc. in mechanical engineering from the University of Toronto. She is a member of the teaching team and a course developer for the Praxis cornerstone design courses.

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Robert Irish University of Toronto


Geoffrey Samuel Frost University of Toronto

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Geoffrey Samuel Frost is a graduate student studying biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto. He completed an undergraduate degree in engineering science at the University of Toronto. He has worked as a Teaching Assistant for the Praxis suite of engineering design courses at the University of Toronto for the past three years.

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Gamification as a Strategy for Promoting Deeper Investigation in a Reverse Engineering ActivityThis paper explores the impacts of gamification on students’ investigations in a reverseengineering activity. This existing activity was gamified in order to promote increasedmotivation and to provide additional scaffolding, in order to push students into explorations thatwent beyond simplistic critique.For the past four years, freshmen students in the [name of engineering program] at University of[Name] have engaged in reverse engineering activity in the first month of their freshman year.Referred to as “device teardowns”, students have been challenged to develop an understanding ofhow design decisions are made and the trade-offs involved in realizing a work of engineeringdesign. This challenge differs from that in a more traditional reverse engineering exercise, inthat the focus is on the design of the device and not on how it functions. Students engage in twoiterative teardowns of household electromechanical devices (e.g. toasters, blenders). The resultsof the teardowns are not themselves assessed, but the evidence gathered by the students duringthe activities is used as the basis for a written report. In previous years, students have reportedenjoying the exercise, but were observed not pushing themselves to explore ideas beyond themost obvious. For instance, they would quickly blame “cost” on any design decisions thatseemed to them substandard.In the most recent iteration of the exercise, we created a game whereby students were awardedachievement levels for (1) practicing safety, (2) developing an understanding of key designdecisions (construed as Design for X [DfX]), and (3) making inferences for logicalargumentation. In Jane McGonigal’s recent work, she suggests that gamers are much less likelyto quit on a challenge because in the game world they not only believe they can figure it out, butalso that the reward for doing so is significant [1]. Although the teardowns did not directlyinclude significant rewards, we employed gamification to challenge students to achieve a broaderset of tasks and to achieve these tasks in deeper and more nuanced ways.By presenting the teardown as a set of achievements that could be earned (and acknowledged bythe teaching team using simple stamps on a paper record) we created an environment of play inwhich students appeared more committed and more deeply engaged than in previous years. Byexplicitly integrating argument into the process of earning achievements, students were pushedto continually construct logical and well-reasoned cases for their understanding of the designdecisions they had identified. Students had to present their achievements to the teaching teamand demonstrate that they had both reached the achievement and understood what it meant to doso. The interactive approach allowed the teaching team to question the students and to demandanswers from any member of a team. The activity as a whole enhanced the students’collaboration, their ability to handle rebuttals and make solid arguments based on physicalevidence, and their understanding of the significance of DfX.In exploring the impacts of the gamification, we investigate the teaching team experience of theteardowns, and in particular the natrure of their interations with the students, the students’perception of the quality of the experience, and the students’ results in the form of a writtenreport on their device teardown. We found improvement in all three areas over previousiterations of the activiy, with the most notable improvement in the students’ use of argument.Through the teardowns, the students, who had only recently been introduced to the Toulminmodel of argumentation [2] as a theoretical construct, developed a solid understanding ofevidence-based argument as grounding for engineering design and communication.[1] McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Changethe World. Penguin, 2011.[2] Toulmin, Stephen. Uses of Argument. Cambridge, 1958.

Foster, J. A., & Sheridan, P. K., & Irish, R., & Frost, G. S. (2012, June), Gamification as a Strategy for Promoting Deeper Investigation in a Reverse Engineering Activity Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21419

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