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Student Practices Developing Needs Statements for Design Problems

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Design Across Curriculum 1

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Robert P. Loweth University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Robert P. Loweth is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. He earned a B.S. in Engineering Sciences from Yale University, with a double major in East Asian Studies. He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Chinese and American Studies, jointly awarded by Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University in China. His research focuses on how undergraduate engineering students solicit information from stakeholders and use this information to assess stakeholder needs as part of their curricular and co-curricular design projects. He is also a Graduate Facilitator for the Center for Socially Engaged Design.

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Shanna R. Daly University of Michigan Orcid 16x16

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Shanna Daly is an Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan. She has a B.E. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Dayton (2003) and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University (2008). Her research focuses on strategies for design innovations through divergent and convergent thinking as well as through deep needs and community assessments using design ethnography, and translating those strategies to design tools and education. She teaches design and entrepreneurship courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels, focusing on front-end design processes.

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Jiangqiong Liu


Kathleen H. Sienko University of Michigan

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Kathleen H. Sienko is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan (UM). She earned her Ph.D. in 2007 in Medical Engineering and Bioastronautics from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology, and holds an S.M. in Aeronautics & Astronautics from MIT and a B.S. in Materials Engineering from the University of Kentucky. She co-founded the UM Center for Socially Engaged Design and directs both the UM Global Health Design Initiative (GHDI) and the Sienko Research Group. The Sienko Research Group is a multidisciplinary laboratory developing novel methodologies to create technological solutions that address pressing societal needs at the intersection of health care and engineering. Dr. Sienko is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and several teaching awards including the ASME Engineering Education Donald N. Zwiep Innovation in Education Award, UM Teaching Innovation Prize, UM Undergraduate Teaching Award, and UM Distinguished Professor Award.

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Problem definition is an important part of design processes; the way that a design problem is defined establishes the project direction and delimits a range of acceptable solutions. A key aspect of the problem definition process is the development of “needs statements” that concisely articulate the design problem and indicate what change in outcome or conditions is necessary for the problem to be resolved. Needs statement development may be informed by several different types of information, including data gathered from stakeholders and/or academic or contextual research.

Our study focused on how stakeholder data may inform needs statement development in the context of a student co-curricular design project. While several previous studies have explored engineering students approaches to gathering stakeholder data, few studies have addressed the following research gaps: 1) What do engineering students think are recommended practices for translating stakeholder data into needs statements? How do these perspectives change as a result of relevant training and practice? 2) What challenges do students encounter when translating their data into needs statements?

We collected data from a 12-member team of engineering students who were conducting a needs assessment in a rural South American community. As part of their needs assessment, the team completed training through their university on developing needs statements, collected interview and observational data from community stakeholders, and used these data to develop needs statements for future design projects. We conducted three rounds of interviews with participants: before they completed training on developing needs statements, after they completed this training, and after they collected stakeholder data (in country) and developed initial needs statements (11 hours of audio total). We then analyzed our interview data to identify common team conceptions of recommended practices for needs statement development at each stage of the team’s process. We also analyzed the third round of interviews to identify common challenges encountered by participants as they developed their needs statements.

Participants primarily described two practices for developing needs statements, “balance specificity and openness” and “avoid embedding solutions.” Both practices were consistent with recommended practices in the training materials, and participant descriptions of these practices increased in specificity following the team’s training and again following the team’s data collection and development of initial needs statements. However, while participants could describe both practices, they struggled to apply these practices effectively when developing initial needs statements. In addition, at no point did participants discuss “incorporating measurable outcome criteria” into needs statements, even though this recommended practice was covered during the team’s training. In response to these findings, we have identified two pedagogical strategies that may help address student knowledge gaps related to developing needs statements. First, we suggest supplementing instruction of recommended practices for needs statement development with numerous examples of both effective and ineffective needs statements for students to compare. Second, we recommend a modified version of Why-How laddering as one way to help students visualize different degrees of specificity when developing needs statements and subsequently identify the degree of specificity that best aligns with their project scope.

Loweth, R. P., & Daly, S. R., & Liu, J., & Sienko, K. H. (2020, June), Student Practices Developing Needs Statements for Design Problems Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35235

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