This paper presents an evidence-based practice pilot study of the potential cognitive benefits of requiring students to create sketches that summarize course material in ways different than presented in class. This exercise is termed a “napkin sketch” to articulate to students the benefits of simple sketches to communicate ideas – as is often done by engineers in practice. The purpose of the study was to investigate how this napkin sketch activity addresses three concerns of engineering educators: creativity, visualization and communication, and knowledge retention. Specific objectives of the study were to generate conclusions regarding the activity’s ability to (1) provide an outlet for, and a means of encouraging creativity, (2) provide an opportunity for students to visualize and communicate what they have learned through drawings rather than equations or writing, and (3) encourage knowledge retention by providing a mechanism for students to think about and describe concepts learned in the classroom differently than for other requirements. The scope of this paper includes the generation, implementation, and analysis of the napkin sketch activity in three civil engineering courses across eight different class sections in the spring and fall of 2019 at the U.S. Military Academy, a small, public, undergraduate-only four-year college in the northeast United States. The motivation for the study stems from evidence-based practices of re-representation from educational psychology, minute papers from educational research, the growing shift to computer-aided design and away from hand drawing, and recent research suggesting our engineering programs may be degrading student creativity. A between-subjects quasi-experimental setup examined four activity implementations and 249 sketches were collected. Sketch creativity was assessed by three instructors using a creativity rubric adapted from literature. The sketch creativity scores, along with individual student academic and course performance data, were analyzed using standard least squares regression and machine learning techniques to investigate the effect of sketching on creativity and understanding of course material. An anonymous and optional survey was also provided to a total of 56 students, with 21 students responding (37.5%). The following key conclusions can be drawn from the study: (1) the activity does encourage students to think about the material differently, and provides a means for creative students to express lesson content creatively; however, assessment bias, selection bias, and the inherent difficulty in assessing creativity does not allow us to draw conclusions about the creativity of engineering students in any absolute sense from the collected data; (2) incorporating an emphasis on freehand sketching into the engineering curriculum could have positive effects toward developing creativity and pictorial communication skills; (3) there was evidence in the data suggesting that the sample populations examined in the study are experiencing degradation in creativity between sophomore and senior level coursework, which was an idea expressed in the literature; (4) the sketch creativity scores are higher when it is conducted after blocks of material and performed outside of class.
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