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Work in Progress: Do Students Really Understand Design Constraints? A Baseline Study

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

DEED Postcard Session 1

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


J. Blake Hylton Ohio Northern University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Hylton is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Ohio Northern University. He previously completed his graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University, where he conducted research in both the School of Mechanical Engineering and the School of Engineering Education. Prior to Purdue, he completed his undergraduate work at the University of Tulsa, also in Mechanical Engineering. He currently teaches first-year engineering courses as well as various courses in Mechanical Engineering, primarily in the mechanics area. His pedagogical research areas include standards-based assessment and curriculum design, the later currently focused on incorporating entrepreneurial thinking into the engineering curriculum.

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John K. Estell Ohio Northern University

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Dr. John K Estell is Professor of Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Ohio Northern University, providing instruction primarily in the areas of introductory computer programming and first-year engineering. He has been on the faculty of the Electrical & Computer Engineering and Computer Science Department since 2001, and served as department chair from 2001-2010. He received a B.S.C.S.E. degree from The University of Toledo and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Estell is a Fellow of ASEE, a Senior Member of IEEE, and a member of ACM, Tau Beta Pi, Eta Kappa Nu, Phi Kappa Phi, and Upsilon Pi Epsilon.

Dr. Estell is active in the assessment community with his work in streamlining and standardizing the outcomes assessment process, and has been an invited presenter at the ABET Symposium. He is also active within the engineering education community, having served ASEE as an officer in the Computers in Education and First-Year Programs Divisions; he and his co-authors have received multiple Best Paper awards at the ASEE Annual Conference. His current research includes examining the nature of constraints in engineering design and providing service learning opportunities for first-year programming students through various K-12 educational activities. Dr. Estell is a Member-at-Large of the Executive Committee for the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET, and also serves as a program evaluator for the Engineering Accreditation Commission. He is also a founding member and serves as Vice President of The Pledge of the Computing Professional, an organization dedicated to the promotion of ethics in the computing professions through a standardized rite-of-passage ceremony.

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Todd France Ohio Northern University

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Todd France is the director of Ohio Northern University's Engineering Education program, which strives to prepare engineering educators for the 7-12 grade levels. Dr. France is also heavily involved in developing and facilitating the Introduction to Engineering course sequence at ONU. He earned his PhD from the University of Colorado Boulder where his research focused on pre-engineering education and project-based learning.

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Louis A. DiBerardino III Ohio Northern University

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Dr. DiBerardino is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Ohio Northern University. His teaching and research interests are in first-year engineering, dynamic systems, and musculoskeletal biomechanics.

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In the latest set of proposed changes to the ABET Engineering Criteria, Engineering Design is defined as “the process of devising a system, component, or process to meet desired needs and specifications within constraints.” While the revised description goes on to describe typical steps in the engineering design process, it then returns to the subject of constraints by providing, “for illustrative purposes only,” an example list of 15 possible constraints. This language was adopted in response to criticisms regarding the current Engineering Criteria, where Criterion 3(c) references a list of eight realistic constraints, prefaced with the oft-overlooked modifier “such as” that was included to indicate that this was not an exhaustive list. Unfortunately, it has too often been the case where engineering programs have taught these eight constraints – economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability – as being the only constraints that need to be considered when performing engineering design. This leads to misconceptions on the part of students, and even some faculty, as to the true nature of how a design attribute can constrain the solution space of a particular problem. Additionally, given the relative lack of instruction on constraints in a typical engineering program, these misconceptions stay with the students after graduation, thereby failing to serve the needs of the various constituencies – especially employers – of the program.

The purpose of this research is to conduct a baseline study of what our entering first-year engineering students know and understand about design constraints. Specifically, there is an interest in identifying those misconceptions and information gaps regarding constraints that first-year students come in with so that a set of learning objectives can then be developed to resolve these issues by the time of graduation. The primary study group consists of approximately 100 students enrolled in a first semester interdisciplinary introduction to engineering course at a small, private Midwestern university. Two comparison groups affiliated with the same university are being used. The first group consists of seniors enrolled in their respective engineering program’s first semester capstone design course, while the second group consists of practicing engineers serving on an industry advisory board at either the departmental or college level. Participants in the study are presented with a problem of someone wanting an easier way to haul things in and out of an existing household attic, along with instructions for using the Constraint-Source Model to perform the constraint analysis. The Constraint-Source Model is conceptually based on four characteristics traditionally associated with the entrepreneurial engineering mindset: technical fundamentals, customer needs, business acumen, and societal values. The Model provides eliciting quantitative and qualitative questions for a set of over 40 commonly experienced design attributes, allowing one to categorize the level to which each attribute serves to constrain the solution space for the problem being addressed. For this research, a subset of 15 design attributes was used, so as to not overwhelm the first-year students. By comparing and contrasting the responses received from the three study groups, it is hypothesized that an initial set of gaps and misconceptions can successfully be identified.

(Note to reviewers: research data has already been collected from the first-year engineering students, and is in the process of being collected from the two comparison groups. Some interesting gaps and misconceptions have already been tentatively identified, but not yet corroborated through use of the comparison groups.)

Hylton, J. B., & Estell, J. K., & France, T., & DiBerardino, L. A. (2017, June), Work in Progress: Do Students Really Understand Design Constraints? A Baseline Study Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--29153

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