Asee peer logo

Problem Definition in Design by First-Year Engineering Students

Download Paper |


2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Design Communications & Cognition I

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1179.1 - 22.1179.12



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors

author page

Sean P. Brophy Purdue University, West Lafayette

author page

Sensen Li Purdue University, West Lafayette

Download Paper |


ASEE Abstract 2011 10/08/10 Problem definition in design using tools, teaming and reflectionEngineering design involves insightful identification of concepts and systematicunpacking of specifications. However, many engineering students are unable to articulatethe major problems to be solved and the sub problems associated with the achieving themain design goals and constraints. In this paper, we report a study about how first-yearengineering (FYE) students attempted to translate given design goals into an integratedset of problems to be solved. Prior research in design describes students’ prematuretermination of solution finding to select a single idea. Then all other design decisions areconstraint by this initial decision. We found that, instead of decomposing the problemthrough further analysis and sense making, many FYE students tended to "restate" thegoal, identify one major function, then start to build. Further, they claimed using asystematic design process, but observations of their problem solving process and teamingskills indicated a different behavior. Further study indicated that many FYE studentscould capture the superficial features from the problem statement, but they were not ableto identify the "invisible" logic or deep structure of the problem.Our current data provided the baseline of how FYE students abstract and interpretinformation from the design goal to generate a specific problem statement. We areinterested in treatments to improve students ability to recognize critical features of agiven context and encourage taking multiple perspective to identify alternatives. We arecombining the use of graphical representational tools as organizational tools to supportteams collaboration and we encourage opportunities to reflect and refine their designprocess. Furthermore,, we expected students to maintain the big picture in mind andconsider how to balance all the major constrains as a whole. This research is relevant toengineering instructors/researchers who want to develop students’ ability to deal withcomplex design challenges and efficiently decompose, analyze and translate the problemstatements into meaningful specifications and a plan of action.

Brophy, S. P., & Li, S. (2011, June), Problem Definition in Design by First-Year Engineering Students Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18476

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2011 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015