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When Students Resist: Ethnography Of A Senior Design Experience

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2002 Annual Conference


Montreal, Canada

Publication Date

June 16, 2002

Start Date

June 16, 2002

End Date

June 19, 2002



Conference Session

Multi-disciplinary Design

Page Count


Page Numbers

7.1315.1 - 7.1315.11



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Paper Authors

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Juan Lucena

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Gary Downey

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Session 3225

When Students Resist: Ethnography of a Senior Design Experience in Engineering Education Gary Downey, Juan Lucena Virginia Tech/Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University


This ethnographic study explores how engineering students in a traditional senior design course interpreted design assignments in terms of the engineering sciences. These students, who had been taught to value the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘design,’ tended to resist design education. They had learned to think about design as a trivial extension of mathematical problem solving. This predisposition made it difficult for activist faculty to convince students that design introduces entirely new learning issues. Although limited in scope, this study suggests that for reform in engineering education to be successful, it may need to go beyond engineering design to rework teaching in the engineering sciences as well.


What can we learn from student resistance to design education? Much of the current reform effort in engineering education involves expanding and enhancing student experiences with engineering design. This emphasis derives from a sense among faculty and alumni that a pendulum that swings between ‘science’ and ‘design’ has swung too far in the direction of science. The solution is to ‘achieve balance’ by swinging it back. [1] This attitude focuses attention on the relative timing and quantitative mix of design and science. For example, some design initiatives expand design experiences in the first year, with the hope of introducing students to what engineering is all about as early as possible.[2-5] Other initiatives integrate design throughout the curriculum with the goal of helping students in "making the transition from the `seat-of-the-pants' freshman design approach to the engineering design approach required for the capstone experience and engineering practice." [6] Finally, senior design capstone courses aim at exposing engineering students to the key elements of design --design methods, project management, teaming, engineering economics, ethics, risks, and professional issues-- before graduation. [7]

How do students understand the distinction between ‘science’ and ‘design’? Students entering engineering programs do not bring it in with them. It is acquired through the curriculum. Since students then spend a great deal of time learning the engineering sciences, might their understanding of the engineering method, of mathematical problem solving, condition how they understand design education and practice?[8] If so, then reform in engineering education may have to go beyond swinging a pendulum, expanding and enhancing design education, to altering

Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Reprinted by permission of Harvey Mudd College

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Lucena, J., & Downey, G. (2002, June), When Students Resist: Ethnography Of A Senior Design Experience Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. 10.18260/1-2--10822

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