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Work in Progress: Initial Approaches for Starting Open-Ended Problems in Mechanical Engineering

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Student Division Technical Session 2

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Paper Authors


Hao Li Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Hao Li is currently a PhD student studying Mechanical Engineering at MIT. He earned his Bachelor's degree from Rice University.

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Anette Hosoi Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Anette (Peko) Hosoi is Associate Dean of Engineering and the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, at MIT.  She received her PhD in Physics from the University of Chicago and went on to become an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in the MIT Department of Mathematics and at the Courant Institute, NYU. She is a leader in the study of the hydrodynamics of thin fluid films and in the nonlinear physical interaction of viscous fluids and deformable interfaces. Her work spans multiple disciplines including physics, biology and applied mathematics, and is being used, in collaboration with Schlumberger-Doll Research, Bluefin Robotics, and Boston Dynamics to guide the engineering design of robotic crawlers and other mechanisms. 

Prof. Hosoi is an exceptional, innovative teacher and an inspiring mentor for women in engineering. She was awarded the Bose Award for Excellence in Teaching, and a MacVicar Fellowship. She is a recipient of the 3M Innovation Award and has held the Doherty Chair in Ocean Utilization at MIT. She is a Radcliffe Institute Fellow and a Fellow of the American Physical Society.  Her research interests include fluid mechanics, bioinspired design and locomotion, with a focus on optimization of crawling gastropods, digging bivalves, swimming microorganisms and soft robotics. Prof. Hosoi is also an avid mountain biker and her passion for sports has led her to create MIT Sports Lab, a program that is designed to build an interconnected community of faculty, students, industry partners, alums and athletes who are dedicated to applying their technical expertise to advance the state-of-the-art in sports.

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This Work in Progress Paper analyzes the process by which students start solving mechanical engineering problems. Participants of this study were given a problem and asked “how would you start solving this problem?” In analyzing participants’ responses, focus was placed on several representations: free body diagram or drawing, use of calculations or analysis, intuition or estimation, identification of additional background, and consideration of alternative designs. Problems with multiple solution methods and multiple answers were chosen, so participants were not confined to solving rote exercises and could fully demonstrate their understanding. These problems were chosen to fit within the scope of undergraduate courses in Engineering Computation and Mechanics of Materials. The subject area of these problems was constrained to the non-design curriculum in mechanical engineering to complement the existing body of work on early stage design by Yang et. al.

To sharpen our methods, a working definition of the start of a problem was proposed. This definition is based on a survey of problem solving strategies by Woods et. al. and includes defining the problem, exploring the problem space, and planning the solution. These strategies are beneficial for starting open-ended problems where the solution path is not immediately obvious to the solver. Evidence for the use of these strategies was obtained by examining participants’ performance on these problems. The techniques used for starting the problem was correlated with problem solving outcome. The overall goal of this study is to understand how students can effectively start difficult coursework-level problems in order to improve engineering problem solving education.

Li, H., & Hosoi, A. (2019, June), Work in Progress: Initial Approaches for Starting Open-Ended Problems in Mechanical Engineering Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33631

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