An investigation of gaps in design process learning: Is there a missing link between breadth and depth?

Christine B. Masters, Mieke Schuurman, Gül Okudan, Samuel T. Hunter

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Teaching 'design' is an integral part of undergraduate engineering preparation. Most four year engineering programs include a first year course focused on the engineering design process where students are exposed to the wide range of issues that must be considered with regard to the 'real life' activity of designing a product or a process. These courses typically culminate in a team report describing the breadth of information accumulated and considered to arrive at the final recommended design. However, at the first year, students typically lack the knowledge to perform any meaningful analysis on their product or process, but rather focus their activities on the less 'technical' but equally important aspects of the design, such as consumer needs, economic impact, safety and design communication. Once students leave their first year, the curriculum focus typically turns almost exclusively to teaching the analytical tools students will need as working engineers to accomplish innovative design, with far less emphasis on the broad design issues that extend beyond the analysis. Anecdotal evidence shows that students do not connect the newly acquired analytical knowledge with the design process, creating a design learning gap. When students return to a design emphasis in the senior year capstone course, they are expected to bridge this gap by synthesizing the broad engineering design understanding from the first year with their analytical depth gained in the second and third years to produce unique engineering design solutions. Can small but effective changes be made in the second and third year to improve this model of design learning that could help students more easily make the connection in the senior year between the broad design learning from three years earlier and their newly developed analytical skills? Through a joint effort involving faculty from Engineering Design, Engineering Mechanics, Civil Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering, we hope to answer just that question. Critical evaluation to determine the effectiveness of any curricular innovation requires some type of concrete baseline evaluation prior to implementation of the innovation. An assessment of improvements to design learning is no different. Design learning and the related design ability have a three-pronged foundation: 1) design process knowledge, 2) creative processing ability, and 3) design analysis knowledge. During the fall 2007 semester, baseline data related to each of these components was collected from students across all four years and several engineering disciplines using the Comprehensive Assessment of Design Engineering Knowledge (CADEK) instrument, a divergent thinking measure, and a creative climate survey. In addition to serving as a benchmark for comparison after curricular innovations are implemented, this baseline data will also enable us to identify the hypothesized gaps in the ability to perform design at different stages of the four year program. This paper reports on the preliminary findings of this initial data collection. The results of these measures will be used as a baseline in the spring semester to support curricular innovation through infusion of modular design activities and electronic portfolios in the second year strength of materials course, followed in fall 2008 by junior level ME and CE courses to improve design learning. Overall, our preliminary analysis indicates that indeed design process learning is enhanced while divergent thinking and perceptions of creative climate diminishes over the course of the four years of undergraduate engineering education. Accordingly, based on our limited data set, we recommend curricular interventions in selected sophomore and junior courses that focus on creative design problem solving.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - 2008
Event2008 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition - Pittsburg, PA, United States
Duration: Jun 22 2008Jun 24 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Engineering(all)


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