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Work in Progress: Improving Engineering Students’ Need-finding Abilities

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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 Methodologies 1

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Meagan Flus University of Waterloo Orcid 16x16

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Meagan Flus is a MASc student in the Department of Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. Her current research area is engineering design education with specific interest in design cognition. Her future work will focus on the intersection of data and design.

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Christopher Rennick University of Waterloo Orcid 16x16

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Mr. Christopher Rennick received his B.A.Sc., Honours Electrical Engineering in 2007 and his M.A.Sc. in Electrical Engineering in 2009, both from the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Chris is currently a PhD student in Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo.
Since 2010, he has been employed with the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada as teaching staff.

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Ada Hurst University of Waterloo Orcid 16x16

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Ada Hurst is a Continuing Lecturer in the Department of Management Sciences at the University of Waterloo. She has taught and coordinated the capstone design courses in the Management Engineering program since 2011. She also teaches courses in organizational theory, technology, and behaviour. Her research falls in the areas of design cognition and processes, engineering design education, and gender issues in STEM disciplines. She is interested in innovations in engineering design pedagogy, problem-based learning, and effective teamwork in student teams. After completing undergraduate studies in electrical engineering, she continued on to earn a Masters and then a doctoral degree in management sciences, all from the University of Waterloo.

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Improving engineering students’ need finding abilities; a work in progress

Design theories such as the popular design thinking approach outline a number of stages of design, typically: needs assessment, problem definition, concept generation, implementation, and evaluation. While engineering students apply design methods, they rarely practice the needs finding step. There are limited opportunities for them to choose a project topic during their undergraduate education, let alone perform a comprehensive needs assessment.

All Canadian undergraduate engineering students participate in a capstone project in their fourth year. One predictor for the quality of the capstone project is the problem chosen by the students, and the effort spent on understanding it. Engineering instructors at the University of Waterloo have identified a lack of opportunities for students to practice their need finding and problem identification skills prior to fourth year. As a result, they have developed a set of in-class activities for third year engineering students to better prepare them for the problem identification stage of their capstone projects. These interventions were only conducted during one academic term and varied between disciplines.

The objective of this research is to conduct evidence-based program improvement. The study aims to identify the teaching practices that improve need finding competencies in engineering graduates and develop interventions to be implemented in the engineering design curriculum. More specifically, in this ongoing study, the authors explore how students identify, select, and justify their capstone project problem; whether in-class instruction on needs identification and assessment improved capstone project outcomes; and which intervention strategy is most effective.

To address these objectives, we use a two-phased mixed-methods approach. The first phase of the study – the results of which will be discussed in this paper - seeks to investigate student needs identification processes and measure the effects of any in-class instruction on those processes. A survey is disseminated to all students in the Mechatronics, Mechanical, Electrical and Computer Engineering classes in the first term of their fourth year, halfway through their capstone design project. We compare the need finding and problem identification strategies of those students who received need finding interventions in their third year to those who did not based on their survey responses. Survey results are used to qualitatively assess the effectiveness of the interventions in improving students’ ability to find and assess needs.

In a second, future phase, the two groups will be assessed at the conclusion of their capstone project. Students’ final designs will be evaluated along a number of dimensions, including problem usefulness and novelty. This evaluation will determine if the effects of need finding interventions improved overall capstone project quality.

The results of this study will aid in the design of future interventions and teaching practices. The study, and any interventions that will be designed as a result of the study, will support improvements to the program quality by addressing an important curricular gap in engineering design education.

Flus, M., & Rennick, C., & Hurst, A. (2020, June), Work in Progress: Improving Engineering Students’ Need-finding Abilities Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35649

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