An Open Ended Design Project Promoting Autonomy in an Introduction to Engineering Course
Updated: 10/6/2020 9:43 AM by
This project is described in a presentation at ASEE 2020 "Best of First-Year Programs Division" session.
Background and Introduction
Hands-on team-based open-ended design projects in freshman engineering courses have been shown to significantly improve student retention due to the benefits of active hands-on learning, self-directed acquisition of knowledge, development of skills and confidence necessary to succeed in engineering and a growing sense of community. Open-ended design projects can range from highly structured to theme-based to free choice. Combining entrepreneurial thinking and maker technology, student-driven free-choice open-ended design projects allow students to generate their own idea, take ownership of their design project, and results in significant gains in creativity and entrepreneurial intentions.
This card describes a free-choice open-ended design project that supports student autonomy, one of the three basic psychological needs from self-determination theory (SDT). SDT postulates that individuals will adopt more internalized/autonomous forms of motivations, resulting in more optimal learning outcomes, when three basic psychological needs are satisfied: autonomy, a sense of choice and control; relatedness, a sense of positive and supportive connections to others; and competence, a sense of mastery and self-efficacy.
The introduction to engineering course is a freshman level 2-credit 15-week lecture and lab course consisting of a 50-minute lecture and a 2-hour 50-minute lab each week. Most students enroll in this course during their first semester in college. The course aims to provide students with an introduction to engineering, introduces the broad topics of the engineering design process, engineering modeling and drawing, teamwork, technical communication, project management and an entrepreneurial mindset. In addition, technical knowledge such as computer-aided design including 3D printing and programming a microcontroller is introduced to help students with their two multidisciplinary design projects, i.e., a well-defined project during the first half of the semester (See Card "Project: Autonomous Mail Delivery System") and an open-ended project during the second half. The course is a required course for students majoring in aerospace engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.
Project Description and Implementation
This card provides all of the materials needed to implement a nine-week long team-based open-ended multi-disciplinary design project in an introduction to engineering course. Students, in teams of four, work on their project in class during lecture and lab for nine weeks. There are two lecture periods dedicated to introduce the project before students work on the project during the labs.
The project description and grading are in the "Project Description" folder. The project uses the following "theme" statement: "Design an automated solution for a space such as a home, campus building including dorm, office, retail, restaurant, hospital, library, and factory. Your design should add value in an economic, environmental, and/or societal sense. For example, your design might help reduce costs, increase efficiency, reduce pollution/waste, and/or improve accessibility, among other things. Your design must incorporate an Arduino or other microcontroller."
Research results from SDT (See paper in the "Publications" folder) showed that, compared to other project definitions which further place constraints on scope and materials, this autonomy-supportive version of the project statement results in more positive student motivational responses. Another interesting finding from the research suggests that the provision of more choice and control seems to have a more dramatic positive impact on women compared to men.
The schedule of the project is shown below along with brief descriptions:
Week 1 (Lecture 1): Pain Point Investigation and Information Collection (worksheet, group discussion)
Week 2 (Lecture 2): Information Synthesis and Opportunity Identification (worksheet, group discussion)
Week 3 (Lab 1): Problem Definition, Brainstorming and Solution Prototyping (worksheet, group discussion, hands-on building)
Week 4 (Lab 2): Design Decision and Project Management (worksheet, group discussion)
Week 5 (Lab 3): Proposal Presentation (oral presentation)
Week 6/7/8 (Lab 4/5/6): Prototype Construction & Testing (hands-on building)
Week 9 (Lab 7): Final Presentation and prototype demonstration (video, oral presentation and demo)
The two lectures help students identify pain points, and collect and synthesize information. Ideally, they should be given at least two weeks before the start of the project so that students have plenty of time to decide which project to work on. The worksheets used in the two lectures are in the "Lecture Worksheets" folder.
Lab 1 and Lab 2 give students the opportunity to go through the engineering design process: define the problem, gather information, generate alternative concepts, evaluate the alternatives, select the most promising concept, plan and manage the project. The problem definition and planning documents used are in the "Supplemental Lab Materials" folder.
During the three project construction labs, a lab agenda is used to help students track their progress. It is in the "Supplemental Lab Materials" folder. Students are asked to complete a business model canvas for their project (assigned during the second construction lab, instructions and template are in the "Supplemental Lab Materials" folder). They are also asked to write a testing plan for their prototype (assigned during the last construction lab, instructions and template in the "Supplemental Lab Materials" folder).
Students have to submit five project deliverables. Instructions, due dates and grading rubrics are in the "Project Deliverables" folder.
Evaluation and Future Work
In the SDT research conducted, for every week of the nine-week project, students were given a Situational Motivation Scale (SIMS) survey, which is an instrument to measure different types of motivations on a continuum ranging from autonomous (internal) to controlled (external) motivations. This continuum includes intrinsic motivation, a deeply internalized state of engagement based on interest, enjoyment, satisfaction and passion; identified regulation, a state in which actions are based on an internal sense of self and perceived value, importance, or usefulness of a task; external regulation, a state of compliance with external pressure, prompted by contingent reward or punishment avoidance, and amotivation, state of impersonal or non-intentional action due to learners finding no value and no desirable outcomes in a learning activity. This survey provides useful diagnostic information and practical insights into course design to support more positive forms of student motivational responses. The survey reveals, for example, that the open-ended design project focusing on automation described in this card seems to result in higher external motivation signals and lower internal motivation signals for chemical engineering students. How to come up with remedies to reach this population is an urgent next step in the project design. The weekly motivation survey also shows a dip in positive motivations during Week 2. How to modify the activity to better support positive student motivation is another future improvement. Furthermore, given that the SIMS profile from this project shows both higher average amotivation and external regulation values compared to the “truly autonomous” motivation profile, identifying strategies to further motivate students to adopt more positive forms of motivation is one more important future work.
A Basic Needs Satisfaction Scale (BNSS) survey was given at the end of the semester, which measures the degree to which three basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence are satisfied. Survey results show that competency may play a role in shaping the motivational responses of students. Therefore, if you do plan to implement an open-ended automation project like the one described in this card, make sure to give students a tutorial and sufficient practice on Arduino, sensors and actuators to make students feel confident in their ability to completing the project. Tutorial and examples on using Arduino, sensors and motors can be found in the Card "Project: Autonomous Mail Delivery System".
Both the Situational Motivation Scale (SIMS) survey and the Basic Needs Satisfaction Scale (BNSS) survey can be found in the "Surveys" folder.
1. Students will, as part of a design team, apply entrepreneurial mindset to create a customer focused design by, identifying pain point, collecting and synthesizing information through web research and customer interview, and proposing a solution to address customer pain point under realistic constraints and system requirements.
2. Students will go through the engineering design process, i.e., design, build and test their prototype.
3. Students will apply project management principles by planning and tracking time, cost and materials.
4. Students will articulate their value proposition through an effective pitch (oral presentation and written report) using NABC (Need, Approach, Benefit, Competition) template.
1) Most students are very engaged and think the project is motivating. Students like the freedom to choose their own design project. See student feedback from papers in the "Publications" folder.
2) Based on the author's past experience, around 80% of teams will have a functioning prototype at the end of the project, and the remaining teams usually make parts of the system work, only failing to integrate the system together. Example student reports can be found in the "Sample Student Reports" folder.
1) Sometimes students are unsure what project to choose and they are afraid of failing and “worrying about the grading for the project”. Instructor needs to go over the grading rubrics and emphasizes that the final outcome is less important than the process, so failing is OK.
2) Most teams will encounter difficulty at some point during the project especially with coding and system integration. Some of them are able to solve the problems themselves, others will need help from instructor and TAs. Make sure the instructor and TAs talk to teams periodically to check on progress and obstacles. For example, at the start, middle and end of the lab period to check in with each team.
3) Another issue is student proposed projects pose a challenge in grading. But overall, the student-voting grading scheme (see the prototype grading rubrics in the "Project Deliverables" folder) coupled with instructor judgement is fairly robust in determining project prototype grade, i.e., it provides a fair assessment of students' effort, creativity, etc.
4) Some students have pushback on EM. One student commented “there was a lot of information on how to sell products, which isn't what most engineers do after getting their degree”. Instructor needs to emphasize more on why EM is important for student's future career.
5) Currently students mostly use friends and/or family members as customers. Ideally real customers, e.g. community partners, would be preferred.