Design cognition includes the formulation of problems, the generation of solutions, and the utilization of design process strategies. Here, we measure the cognitive load to generate solutions to engineering challenges for sustainability using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). fNIRS can be used to study brain activity in more natural environments, while also providing better spatial resolution than EEG and better temporal resolution than fMRI. It therefore offers new opportunities for exploring how brain activity relates to engineering design. While there is literature describing which brain regions support particular cognitive functions, far less is known about how these are developed through learning and how they support design thinking. By measuring hemodynamic responses during brainstorming tasks with freshmen (n=14) and senior (n=9) engineering students we find a significant difference (p<0.001) in the cognitive activation required to generate solutions. Freshmen engineering students show 5 times greater activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (known to involve working memory, cognitive flexibility, planning, inhibition, and abstract reasoning) compared to seniors. While seniors show an average of 10 times increase in activation in the premotor cortex (known to be involved in the management of uncertainty, control of behavior, and self-reflection in decision making). The number of solutions generated was also significant (p=0.032). Freshmen generated 5.6 solutions on average during the brainstorming activity while seniors developed 4.1. In many ways, this initial work serves as a proof of concept in using neuroimaging to study the processes involved in engineering design. Through a better understanding of these processes, we can begin to explore specific elements of the engineering curriculum that may contribute to student ability to manage complexity inherent in engineering design problems. We hope this interdisciplinary study integrating engineering education and neuroscience generates conversation about other engineering design tasks and settings, in which, fNIRS can be effectively used as a new tool.
Are you a researcher? Would you like to cite this paper?
Visit the ASEE document repository at
for more tools and easy citations.