June 20, 2010
June 20, 2010
June 23, 2010
Design in Engineering Education
15.1238.1 - 15.1238.15
The Importance of Problem Interpretation for Engineering Students
Abstract This study used Verbal Protocol Analysis (VPA) to investigate the cognitive process of 8 undergraduate engineering students during a hands-on model building design task. The present paper will focus on one aspect that emerged from this research: the paramount importance of correctly interpreting the problem. Although this may seem simplistic, correctly framing or interpreting the problem (which is distinct from identifying the problem) was a crucial and pivotal point for these students. Without it, the developmental process stalled and the design path became more haphazard. Once students were able to correctly interpret the problem, their path to a viable solution progressed much more smoothly and efficiently.
Understanding how and if engineering students are utilizing the engineering design process (EDP) is important in order to understand and implement effective teaching of design courses. The obvious first step in any engineering design task is identifying the problem or need; a bridge washes out, garbage bins are needed for a train, an amputee needs a more comfortable leg brace. However, there needs to be a distinction made between identifying the need and interpreting the problem. Interpreting the problem is the interface between identifying the need and developing a viable solution. If addressing the issue of a town becoming inaccessible during the rainy season when its only bridge washes out, some interpretations of the problem might be that the bridge is not strong enough, there is too much water with no place to go, or the town is geographically too vulnerable. These various perspectives might all lead to good solutions, but how an engineer interprets or frames the problem informs the approaches taken and influences the solution. While identifying the need may be fairly straightforward or obvious, interpreting the problem can be much more obscure. Pahl noted a decade ago that good solutions come from a thorough analysis and clarification of the task. Are engineering students learning this task clarification or problem interpretation? What factors do engineering students consider during the EDP?
A number of studies have focused on problem interpretation. In a meta-analysis of 40 studies of the design process, Mehalik and Schunn discussed how problem representation is one of the elements of the EDP. How a problem is construed has an impact on what aspects of a design are emphasized and on the solution paths chosen. They also noted that more experienced designers tended to spend more time exploring and analyzing the problem than inexperienced designers.
Ill-structured problems are often a mixture of people, institutions, artifacts, and nature, making for a complex system that could lead to half-solved problems or even solving the wrong problem. Framing the problem correctly, particularly ill-structured ones, is fundamental to its’ solution.  For example, in studying the design strategies of experts, Cross and Clayburn Cross noted the importance of problem framing during the design task of attaching a backpack to a bicycle. In
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