Notes on ‘Teaching Design in the first years of a traditional mechanical engineering degree: methods, issues and future perspectives’

Constructionarium offers students the chance to build real civil engineeirng structures

Constructionarium offers students the chance to build real civil engineeirng structures

From the latest edition of the European Journal of Engineering Education (Vol 40 (1)) I have just read the very interesting paper ‘Teaching Design  in the first years of a traditional mechanical engineering degree: methods, issues and future perspectives’ by Silva, Fontul and Henriques. This blog is to capture my thoughts.
I am conscious that while I and my colleagues at Think Up have been involved for many years now in changing the way design is taught in civil engineering degree courses, we have written relatively little on what we have been up to. This paper is a good introduction to some the issues associated with integrating design teaching into the first year of mechanical engineering degree courses. It offers some parallels to civil engineering teaching (I will look in due course for papers directly related to civil engineering)
The authors describe how mechanical engineering is traditionally taught through a series of separate courses with little cross-over and little opportunity for interdisciplinary design and open-ended problem solving. They describe a pilot project in which a design project is spread across three early modules in the course. Briefly, during two modules on technical drawing students design a simple innovative product, and create a prototype; and then in a subsequent course on materials they have to choose a material to manufacture it from. Some of the benefits are that learning is massively enhanced because students have to build something. Students learnt that iteration is a necessary and valuable process and not an admission of failure. And interestingly, students become aware of what they don’t know, which motivates them to learn in later courses. One of the challenges that this form of teaching throws up is that it takes much longer to facilitate.
Reflections on relevance to civil engineering teaching
  • I haven’t yet seen a survey on how design is taught on civil engineering courses, but I have a reasonable idea. For the last ten years or so design has become a feature of most courses; however it seems often to exist as a stand-alone module at the end of the year, or a task within a module, tackled from the perspective of that course only. The innovation here is that one design project is taken as the common thread across three separate courses. During each course that design project is tackled from the perspective of that course but due attention needs to be given to the perspectives adopted by the other disciplines of the other courses. A parallel in civil engineering would be for instances to spread a hydroelectric dam design project across a geomatics, fluid mechanics and geotechnics course.
  • The challenge with teaching design in civil engineering is that it is difficult to build what students design at a meaningful scale. I haven’t yet found the answer to this, but it regularly occupies my thoughts. It is possible at an elemental scale, for instance Ahmer Wadee’s plate girder make and break course at Imperial College; but harder at a greater scale. The Constructionarium is an example of a place where students get to build civil engineering structures at a meaningful scale, but students don’t get the chance to design what they are building.
  • In the report which we wrote on experinece-led learning we strongly advocated taking an approach in which students try to define what knowledge they would need to know in order to become a professional engineer. As my experience with Engineering Knowledge Club has shown , the process needs a lot of facilitated discussion as students initially have very little idea of what information they need. Reading this paper it seems that setting a design project early in the course might be an alternative way of meeting this aim.
  • I have previously written that interdisciplinary working is a skill that supports sustainable design, and this paper reminds me that interdisciplinary working can of course be achieved by running an interdisciplinary design course.
  • The authors note that this type of project takes time. In my seminars with lecturers  in civil engineering departments this factor is a common complaint. My response is that we have to look at course content and evaluate what is more important, the ability to solve open-ended problems and design more effectively, the skill which industry is looking for, or the mastery of specific technical skills to a high level, often higher than what is needed for practice.
The paper also points to a number of other publications that I want to check out. In particular:
  • Dym et al (2005) Engineering Design Thinking, Teaching and Learning – Journal of Engineering Education – A summary of designing thinking, teaching and learning, including an analysis of first-year cornerstone design courses and curriculum dispersed design courses.
  • Marra, Palmer and Litzinger (2000) – The Effects of a First Year Engineering Design Course on Student Intellectual Development as Measured by the Perry Scheme – 2000 – Journal of Engineering Education.
  • Haungs et al – 2001 – “Improving Engineering Education through Creativity, Collaboration and Context in a First Year Course” – ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh PA  – Three major factors influencing negatively affecting creativity and retention rates in first year students:
    • 1) hard for students to see how course material relates to real-world applications
    • 2) students perceive engineering as an individual endeavour rather than an activity with peers
    • 3) engineering assignments are overly constrained
  • Bedard – 1999 – advocates a hands-onapproach to promote creativity in engineering education despite the risk of developing a reflex that trial and error can solve most problems and reduce student respect for the analytical component of engineering.
  • “Enhancing Student Creativity and Respect for the Linkages between analysis and design in a first year engineering course.
  • Hargreaves (2008) – Inherent balance between exposing students to challenge, and thus risk, and current higher education models of quality assurance that are risk-averse and thus potentially limit the scope of creative learning and teaching strategies.
  • Meinel and Leifer 2011 – “Design Thinking: Understand – Improve – Apply. Berlin: Springer.-  report on the HPI-Stanford Design Thinking Research Programme where students are taught the basic rules of design.
  • Hirsch et al (2001) – “Engineering Design and Communication – the case for interdisciplinary collaboration” – International Journal of Engineering Education 2001 – How teaching design and communication at the same can enhance the students’ ability to tackle future engineering courses and career.