Learn about diversity at ASEE
ASEE would like to acknowledge the generous support of our premier corporate partners.




Educators are borrowing from other disciplines - and nature - to re-think a staple of undergraduate engineering.

From the elegant arcs of the Golden Gate Bridge to an arrow’s soaring flight, all things great and small represent triumphs of design. This signature activity spans fields as diverse as biomechanics and industrial engineering and makes capstone design courses an undergraduate staple.

Yet many design experiences narrowly concentrate on a mechanical, electrical, or other department-specific project rather than fostering the multi-disciplinary teamwork typical of industry. A new report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching urges undergraduate engineering programs to overhaul their “jam-packed curriculum focused on technical knowledge” and offer more practice-like experiences — the engineering equivalent of clinical rotations for medical students — to help students become creative thinkers who can see, not just solve, problems.

Some pioneering design-course instructors are doing just that. With an assist from the National Science Foundation, they are identifying common elements across engineering disciplines and forging collaborations with architecture, cognitive science, and even the liberal arts. Their aim: figure out how engineers move from inspiration to innovation to product, then retool the design experience accordingly. Explains Jonathan Cagan, professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and an authority on breakthrough product design: “We’re trying to rethink the whole way engineering design is taught.” Here are some examples.

From modeling to selling

Alan Cheville, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, reconfigured the capstone electrical engineering design course around analysis, communications, and other “soft” skills. Engineers, he notes, must learn how to manufacture prototypes, meet deadlines, analyze data, validate results, and “sell” concepts.

Cheville broke the design process into five phases, from researching a problem through modeling, fabrication, testing, and communicating results. He then developed new units to hone the skills real-world engineers need. Students choose specialties and become their team’s go-to “experts”; for instance, someone who enjoys handiwork can opt to be the team’s circuit-board builder, while another is responsible for measurement. Students must win approval for proposed designs and “market” their finished product in a written or Web-based sales pitch. The wrap-up is a three-page reflection on whether they liked their team role and the course’s impact on career choices.

Incorporate “breathers”

How do engineers arrive at that “aha!” moment that breaks through obstacles and leads to ingenious solutions? To find out, Carnegie Mellon’s Cagan, co-author of The Design of Things to Come: How Ordinary People Create Extraordinary Products, and his student Ian Tseng teamed up with cognitive psychologists Ken Kotovsky and Jarrod Moss to examine ways to stimulate creativity. Focusing on the early stages of the design process, they gave students a list of common items, such as a roll of tape, matches, and a ladder, with instructions to identify ways to use the items to create time-keeping devices. The open-ended assignment required students to brainstorm and conceptualize what a client or consumer might really want. The investigators then studied two different student approaches. One group read snippets of information about tape decks and heart-rate monitors before starting. Another group jumped in unprepared, but then took a break to read those same descriptions. The latter group came up with significantly more functionally distinct designs and far-reaching devices, leading Cagan to include information-gathering breaks in his graduate design course.

“When you have an open goal,” explains Cagan, “it’s infinitely more useful to get information after starting to solve the problem.” Even seemingly tangential reading can produce useful information.

Look to Nature

Nature abounds with design insights. Think of the gravity-defying gecko scooting up a sheer windowpane or the Velcro-like huckleberry burr. Or the puffer fish, which halts predators by inflating. Airbags have a similar function. “You can find organisms, systems, or ecologies that can inspire you directly,” says Missouri University of Science and Technology professor of interdisciplinary engineering Rob Stone. Trouble is, “most engineers don’t have a very good biology background” and thus can’t identify analogous functions, a concept known as biomimetics, that would let them make imaginative leaps. Rather than trying to cram a bio lab into the curriculum, Stone created a Cliff Notes version for a graduate course: a searchable thesaurus that translates engineering terminology into its equivalent function in biology. He is now incorporating biomimetics and the thesaurus into a senior design course.

Integrate disciplines campus-wide

Tim Simpson, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Pennsylvania State University, believes an interdisciplinary approach to design is critical, since few products fall neatly into mechanical, electrical, or other domains. Key to this approach is a common vocabulary that can be shared among multiple disciplines. Simpson already encourages cross-fertilization among various engineering disciplines with an integrated design lab called the Learning Factory. He sees the results in the senior design course, where students know whom to ask for information rather than making it up or rushing to Wikipedia. Recently, Penn State unveiled a junior-year design course in mechanical engineering to expose students to tools and theories they will need for their capstone projects.

But Simpson believes the approach can be broadened further. With NSF funding, he is holding workshops that include architects, psychologists, and liberal-arts faculty, along with engineers, who share a passion for design. “When you strip away the application, we found people were talking about the same thing,” reports Simpson. He now hopes to foster campus-wide collaborations, joining mechanical engineers, say, with students from kinesiology, business, and sports rehab to design products to prevent knee injuries in female athletes.

Go with the flow

Could nature hold a universal approach to all design problems, regardless of discipline? Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, and Sylvie Lorente, professor of civil engineering at the University of Toulouse, think so and have developed textbooks and interdisciplinary design courses around it. At its core is “flow.” Sap rising to lofty branches and bronchial tubes delivering oxygen to the blood share the concept of flow. So does the Atlanta airport, among the world’s most efficient, with a trunk-and-branch layout that echoes a tree’s vascular system. The rules for optimal efficiency, contends Bejan, can be expressed in a few simple designs.

This novel lens, which Bejan calls “constructal theory,” does not copy from nature as much as it analyzes and predicts designs from the natural world. It sets forth design principles that minimize the impact of flaws or impediments, he argues — whether the flow in question is stresses in a skyscraper or heat from a microcircuit.

While constructal theory has yet to gain wide acceptance, it has ignited imaginations in an undergraduate design course that Bejan developed with Lorente. One recent class reacted to US Airways Flight 1529’s dramatic ditching in the Hudson River by debating how airplane floors could be re-designed to ease emergency escapes. For their final project, students must write and defend a term paper about a big “flow” idea. One military history buff applied the theory to the movements and configurations of winning armies from the Battle of Marathon to the Napoleonic wars.

Efforts to overhaul engineering design courses face inevitable hurdles. Chief among them: giving instructors the time and freedom to collaborate. “It’s not that we don’t want to do it,” notes Penn State’s Simpson. “But I have four courses I have to teach each year. That’s what I’m evaluated on and paid for and expected to deliver.” Lab space is another challenge. So is culture. When members of an interdisciplinary team showed up to pitch product ideas to their sponsor, the business students wore suits, the engineering majors, T-shirts and shorts. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, however, is a way of thinking that innovation requires, one that deals with ambiguity and reaches beyond the technical specifics students are taught and tested on. For engineering educators, changing that dynamic may be the ultimate design challenge.

Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in education.




© Copyright 2009
American Society for Engineering Education
1818 N Street, N.W., Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036-2479
Telephone: (202) 331-3500