This full paper offers an overview of a first year robotics instructor’s implementation of a client-driven design project as a means of emphasizing a breadth of engineering concepts. First year courses are employed for teaching fundamental technical content while also exposing students to important non-technical skills within engineering design, such as communication and collaboration. In recent years, the design of first year courses in engineering have fallen under even heavier examination as experts in the field have called for more graduates in engineering fields with more practice-based experiences. Instructors have thus been turning to project-based assignments in order to not only cover technical to non-technical learning goals, but also as a means of capturing student interest early in their undergraduate coursework.
Employers in the engineering field have been cited as seeing a lack of communication and understanding of real-world constraints in newly hired engineers (Lattuca, Terenzini, and Volkwein, 2006; Sheppard, Macatangay, Colby and Sullivan, 2009). Previous research has shown that project-based assignments presented in first year engineering courses can help address this void. Many of these first-year studies focus around a real problem from the surrounding community (Saterbak & Volz, 2012; Simiawski, Luca, Pal & Saez, 2015) or a particular client (Saterbak & Volz, 2014). These types of projects ideally align more closely with what students will experience in engineering careers. Research has captured student growth in the less technical areas of engineering through the implementation of client-based projects (Saterbak & Volz, 2014). However, as engineering students focus on more real world engineering contexts, evidence warns that students may start to dismiss knowledge content from earlier coursework as unimportant, seeing a disunity in what skills are required of engineers (Jocuns et al. 2008; Korte, Sheppard, and Jordan 2008). There is thus space to further explore:
how a first year course instructor might implement a project in such a way that allows students to define success in engineering more holistically and
what characteristics of “expert” engineers start to emerge as students complete a human-centered design project?
This paper aims to address these questions through detailing the instructor’s methodologies in designing and implementing three different projects, the last of which was to design a toy for children aged four to eight years old. The final project included both a prototyping session and final showcase where children tested the toy designs. Through a close examination of student short-answer reflection surveys at the beginning and end of the semester, this work offers how a client-centered project impacted the student’s criteria for success in engineering design. In their reflections, students also respond to the question “what they would do differently” if given more time to iterate on their project, thereby offering insight into where their thought processes start to align with that of professional engineers.
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