A Pedagogical Framework for Undergraduate Project-Based Engineering Design Courses


PI: Conor Walsh, Donal Holland, Krzysztof Gajos
Harvard University
Award Details

Engineering courses involving design projects are increasingly of interest to educators setting curricula for undergraduate engineering programs. Design projects improve students’ problem solving abilities. However, much variation exists in how projects are implemented and existing guidelines are limited. This is due, in part, to the non-traditional and open-ended nature of these courses when compared to typical engineering courses. Currently guidelines are also hindered by a lack of research aimed at aligning educational practice with learning theories and results from research on the cognitive processes involved in design. The research will result in a general framework and data collection tools intended to guide engineering schools in making improvements in undergraduate project-based design courses. Results of this project will help improve the ability of engineering students to design innovative systems and processes to meet consumer needs. Continued innovation in science and engineering is vital to national security, economic growth, and achieving a sustainable society.

The project will develop a framework that addresses three problematic aspects of engineering design projects: the need for process-related, context-specific coaching to help students acquire the procedural knowledge required for successful design; a lack of access to detailed documentation of prior designs, which students need to demonstrate an ability to transfer knowledge; and a related lack of access to engineering communities of practice, with whom students must engage to learn both the technical and social aspects of design knowledge. To define a general pedagogical framework for engineering design, it is necessary to gather data from large numbers of students and educators in a variety of courses and contexts. To achieve this, new methods and online instruments will be developed for evaluating the efficacy of different learning environments. The research embedded in this project will yield insights into the processes followed by novice designers and the types of coaching required to improve learners’ procedural knowledge, the ways in which learners interact with prior designs and engineering communities of practice, and the effects these interactions have upon their design knowledge. This latter contribution is especially important given the increased availability of open source technology and related online communities of practice. The project includes efforts to disseminate the results of this work to the broader engineering education community.