Design courses are often tasked with teaching all the steps of the engineering design process in the span of a single semester. The coverage is often biased; problem identification, research, and brainstorming are easily taught in a traditional classroom, and therefore are emphasized in training of students. Fabrication, testing, and iteration, in contrast, are often emphasized less simply because they unusually demanding of faculty time, and require greater physical resources. Nevertheless, we believe that immersive design-build-iterate experiences are a vital part of early-year undergraduate engineering education.
Project-based courses in design are useful for providing end-to-end training in all the steps of the engineering design process, including fabrication, testing, and (sometimes) iteration. However, depending on the nature of the design project, there can be great variability between the skills acquired by individual student teams, and between individual students on a given team.
To partially overcome these limitations, we instituted three changes to a second-year design course. First, the course was delivered in two sections, partially online, to reduce the student-to-instructor ratio. Second, rather than an open-ended project, the students were instead trained individually in a variety of useful engineering skills, ranging from embedded controllers and CAD, to power tools and welding. Finally, rather than a forward engineering approach to teaching design within the context of an open-ended project, design was instead learned through the reverse engineering approach of product archaeology.
We assessed these changes relative to a previous project-based year via anonymous course evaluations, including textual analysis. We found that course evaluations were improved, that students better connect learning to skills, and that students appreciated the opportunity to develop a uniform skill set by the end of the semester. This is in contrast to a project-based class where skills development was not uniform between or within teams, and students did not connect learning to skills development. We further assessed this pedagogical approach by measuring the psychological construct engineering design self-efficacy at the beginning and end of the semester, since there are prior reports of gains in the confidence of students in their fabrication skills as a result of immersive design-build projects. We found that students’ belief in their abilities improved significantly over the course of the semester in every step of the engineering design process. We hypothesize that developing early student competencies in design fundamentals will lead to improvements in design projects in the later years of engineering students’ education, and at a level greater than project-based learning.
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