As described in this GIFTS presentation, we developed a first-year multidisciplinary design project, which compels students to think in terms of circular economies. This project focused on introducing students to the design process and project management. The assignment also connects to course modules on ethics, introductory programming, and data analysis. We structured the project for teams of 4-5 first-year students, requiring 40-50 hours per student throughout the semester. This two-credit multidisciplinary engineering course broadly covers engineering skill development, and many teams begin the project with a minimal background in the technologies required to implement the design.
The project requires technical work in mechanics, electronics, and programming in a context of system design and sustainability. Most students find at least one area of the project that connects with their academic goals. Students must navigate an assessment objective with competing factors. A low stakes (3% of final grade) competition includes several conflicting factors: minimizing project cost, speed, accuracy (straight-line travel), load-carrying capacity, and percentage of reusable parts. Students record and reflect on the struggle of balancing cost and reusability against performance goals. Should the car be light and fast, or focus on carrying a larger mass and reliably following a straight line? Should they invest in expensive RC car wheels or use old CDs? The open-ended design process means teams progress at various rates governed only by a few checkpoints. Teams that test and redesign a couple of weeks before competition tend to fair better. Yet, some last minute teams have delivered well built, high-performing vehicles, and others have over tested: wearing out components not constructed for repeated use or suffering a damaging crash.
The course also covers a broad discussion of engineering ethics. From the top down, we consider the societal impact of our profession and ethic responsibility to the greater good. We address ideas of circular economies and sustainability. The students are required to keep their vehicle battery charged with use of a photovoltaic module. The competition goal prominently features the reusability component. The higher the percent of reusable cost (ratio of total cost to cost of reusable parts), the better their performance score. Faculty assess reusability: which components, after the students disassemble their projects following competition day, will be marketable to future project teams. Closing the loop on the circular economy in our course, we open each semester with an auction where teams bid on these reusable materials. Teams budget parts purchased at auction in the same manner as purchased new components.
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