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How Students Create Verbal Descriptions of Physical Parts

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Best of DEED

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Steven C. Zemke Gonzaga University

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Steven Zemke, Ph.D., has been involved in engineering design and teamwork for over 35 years as a professional engineer, university professor, and researcher. He is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., and teaches engineering design and teamwork courses. His two research foci are how students learn design and teamwork and how understanding of learning can be used to create more effective pedagogy. Prior to teaching, Dr. Zemke was a professional product designer for over 20 years with an emphasis on mechanical packaging of microwave circuitry.

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Diane L. Zemke

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Diane Zemke is an independent researcher and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in leadership studies from Gonzaga University. Her research interests include teamwork, small group dynamics, dissent, organizational change, and reflective practice. Dr. Zemke has published in the International Journal of Engineering Education, the Journal of Religious Leadership, and various ASEE conference proceedings. She is the author of "Being Smart about Congregational Change."

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Clear and precise communication is a fundamental skill that professional engineers need. They employ it while doing engineering, such as interacting on design teams, and while communicating engineered results, such as in technical reports. Furthermore, communication comes in many forms, such as written reports, verbal interactions, documented calculations, and engineering drawings. Consequently, engineering communication is a common element across engineering curricula.

In a previous study we identified that students had difficulty communicating design ideas with their peers on design teams. This difficulty occurred both in their sketching ability and their verbal descriptions of parts and assemblies. Notably, their difficulties with verbal communication directly interfered with their ability to work productively together.

In contrast, design textbooks are either silent or nearly silent on how to verbally describe parts. For example, one popular design textbook briefly mentions that parts can be described semantically and that teams must communicate to collaborate, but does not elaborate on semantic representations. Verbal descriptions of parts seems to lie outside the typical curricular materials for engineering and presumably outside most engineering curricula. Consequently, little practical guidance of what is important to teach in verbal descriptions resides in the engineering design education community.

This current study examines the verbal aspect of students communicating about parts and assemblies. Student participants were asked to describe parts and assemblies of common hardware store items that were physically in their hands. We assumed that describing a physical part, that is in hand, is a fundamental skills. Verbally describing conceptual parts, such as shown in sketches, drawings, or modeled on a CAD system, rely upon the more basic skill of being able to describe a physically existing part.

The intent of this study was to learn how students create descriptions of physical parts and assemblies. Hence the driving question in this study was:

What characterizes students’ descriptions of parts and assemblies that they are physically examining?

This qualitative multiple case study was conducted in an engineering school where seven students were individually video-recorded while describing three separate hardware store items. The video data was analyzed using standard content analysis methods and rich descriptions were written of the students’ approaches to the task. The analysis showed that all students found the task difficult and structured their descriptions idiosyncratically. However, five basic descriptive verbal approaches emerged, which form a naturalistic taxonomy for verbal description. The study concludes with suggestions of how minor adjustments to this naturalistic taxonomy, which could potentially be taught, could create much more precise verbal descriptions.

Zemke, S. C., & Zemke, D. L. (2016, June), How Students Create Verbal Descriptions of Physical Parts Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25480

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