Recent studies within engineering education have been focused on better preparing engineering graduates to function within an industry design environment. Increased emphasis in this area is motivated by a growing concern that graduates are entering industry with little experience engaging in authentic multidisciplinary design projects. While guidance from professors with industry experience and teaching techniques such as project-based and service learning are common approaches to supporting student preparation, there is continued need for design education to include a focus on the development of skills to support communication across disciplinary and team boundaries (e.g., shared language, clarity of narrative and persuasion). These skills, which are frequently thought of as non-engineering work, are as critical to the completion of multidisciplinary projects as skills associated with conventional engineering design work (i.e., design and technical practices). As a result, this study aims to identify educational design principles for supporting student development by exploring how engineers working on multidisciplinary design teams use artifacts to communicate and how those artifacts affect design decision making.
A multiple case study was designed to explore the practices of engineers at three different technology companies of varied size and production focus. This field study comprised multi-day visits, during which the research team conducted interviews with engineers and project managers and observations of design team meetings. Interviews and observations provided insight into the interactions between members of multidisciplinary teams and the effects of different communication strategies on the team and their particular design project. For example, during the interviews, participants were asked to describe common modes of communication within their teams and the company as a whole. Observations of meetings helped capture details about the content, purpose, results of the interaction, as well as the communication methods used by the engineers. Data analysis is currently underway to explore the communicative artifacts used by practicing designers and engineers to facilitate communication and decision-making. Using content analysis methodologies, the classifications of these artifacts, their characteristics and their functions will be examined in-depth within each research case, across cases, and in relation to existing research. From this analysis, educational design principles will be identified for further exploration and triangulation.
This study complements existing engineering design research by exploring the experiences of practicing engineers as they attempt to communicate across disciplinary and team boundaries. Examinations of the artifacts they use will support the development of design principles for instructors to create modules, assessments, and activities for engineering design classrooms. Findings from this study will be incorporated into an engineering design course in the spring of 2017 to further our overall goal of facilitating the preparation of students for multidisciplinary engineering design projects in industry.
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