Asee peer logo

The Use of Virtual Design Modules in an Introduction to Engineering Course: Impact on Learning Outcomes and Engineering Identity

Download Paper |


2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Virtual Instruction in the First Year III

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Shannon Barker University of Virginia

visit author page

Dr. Shannon Barker completed her PhD at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and completed two post-doctoral fellowships at the University of Washington and Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, specializing in gene delivery. Shannon has been in graduate higher education leadership for seven years both at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Virginia, and is currently the Undergraduate Program Director for the University of Virginia's Department of Biomedical Engineering.

visit author page

Download Paper |


The Introduction to Engineering course is taken by all first-year students in the Engineering school of an R1 university. The learning objectives of the course are 1) to introduce students to the engineering design process; 2) to practice applying the design process to solve problems in collaborative teams; 3) to learn the importance of effective communications; and 4) to feel confident in their capacity to be an engineer and identify as belonging to the engineering community.

Typically, these learning objectives are assessed through a series of in-person design team projects in the classroom studio, whereby the instructor and teaching assistants work closely with students. In the Fall of 2020, however, the course will be conducted virtually. We discuss the design and implementation of a series of virtual design modules aimed at maintaining the course learning objectives while providing an inclusive and supportive learning environment.

The design modules allow student teams to work remotely without the need for on-campus space or face-to-face time with the teaching team. Weekly virtual support was implemented through check-in hours held by each member of the teaching team, synchronous class discussions, educational videos available through VoiceThread, and the use of discussion boards and chat features. We also offered several ways to build community within the course, which was especially critical given the predominately online nature of this semester and the fact that the students were brand new to the University. Within each design module, students were given numerous opportunities to receive feedback on their work via homework assignments.

The series of design modules included the following projects in the following order: 1. Design a ping pong ball launcher using household materials: As the first assignment of the semester, this project was designed to be fun, low-stakes, and easy to accomplish no matter where the students were learning. Teams made short videos describing their design and capturing five consecutive launches, including distance measurements. Videos were uploaded to VoiceThread so students could watch and learn from each other’s designs. Teams worked in two phases: an initial design and a re-design, in order to reflect the iterative nature of engineering. 2. Propose ten redesign ideas of a simple device: This project offered teams the opportunity to practice the ideation process and to demonstrate the fact that multiple solutions can exist for open-ended problems. 3. Design a pandemic tool: Now that students felt comfortable working remotely and have gotten to know their teammates, the projects become progressively more complicated. In this project, teams practice problem definition and customer discovery, as well as technical drawing. The final deliverable was a 2-page technical report describing the problem, the customer profile, the rationale and details of the solution, and a summary of the potential impact and significance. 4. Pandemic-driven sustainability infographic and informational video: Here, students choose a sustainability topic of interest and explore how the pandemic has affected it, either positively or negatively. The students continue learning about problem definition and customer discovery, but also about new forms of communications, and the intersection of engineering/science and the general public. 5. Mathematical modeling of herd immunity: Here, teams learn the fundamentals of herd immunity and the role of vaccination, and how to create mathematical models to predict outbreaks. The final deliverable here is an OpEd piece in a fictional national newspaper sharing the team’s findings and recommendations as a public health service. Again, the team will continue learning about problem definition and problem-solving, but with a focus on the use of computational and data science methodologies. Teams also continue to explore effective communications and the its employment for the public good.

To assess the overall effectiveness of this approach on achieving the learning outcomes, a survey was administered at the beginning and end of the semester, focused on the students’ self-perception on their comfort with fundamental engineering concepts and on their identification as an engineer and sense of belonging. The results of these surveys will be compared to assess any changes in these perceptions over the semester. Additionally, these results will be compared with course evaluations and general performance over time on the series of design modules.

Barker, S. (2021, July), The Use of Virtual Design Modules in an Introduction to Engineering Course: Impact on Learning Outcomes and Engineering Identity Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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: © 2021 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