Product Archaeology: Digging Into Consumer Products
2019 ASEE Conference. Exploring global, economic, societal, & environ. impacts.
This project was described in a presentation at ASEE 2019 in the Entrepreneurship & Engineering Innovation Division Technical Session 2
Product archaeology is the study and dissection of products in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the global, societal, economic, and environmental impacts of the design. Engineers research various products, investigating the technical aspects of the design as well as the sociocultural implications that are attached to them.
Over the course of a four week project, first-year students perform a “dig” on a consumer product (e.g., bluetooth speakers, coffee mugs, flashlights, shampoo, paper towels, etc). Much like an archaeological dig is a process, so is product archaeology for engineers. Therefore, each week students complete a phase of the product archeology process: preparation, excavation, evaluation, and explanation.
Archaeologists do not just go around digging in any old spot looking for something interesting. Instead, they do some background research and look for places that seem especially interesting or likely to yield worthwhile findings. Similarly, during the preparation phase, students conduct research on the background and history of the product, noting interesting developments or important events that provide a historical context for the product today. This phase will require that information be integrated and cited from credible sources (connections), including those found in the University library.
Once initial research is done and students know what to look for and where to look, they can begin to dig. During the excavation phase, students conduct experiments with their products and explore the form, function, and other important aspects of the design. With a curious mind, students design describe at least 3 experiments they will conduct on their products to explore differences and determine which is “optimal” for their purposes. Here, students will look at differences between designs and begin thinking about why they might be that way.
Once the products have been dissected and students have explored the nuances of the product and its components, they need to make some evaluations. Much like an archaeologist uses the information about the excavated artifact to make conclusions about what they found (e.g., the size and dimension of a bone leads to the conclusion that it was a tooth and not a femur), students will evaluate the processes involved in the creation and manufacturing of this product. Importantly, students will also consider alternatives to what their teams determined as they explore this phase.
In the explanation phase, it all comes together. Archaeologists use the research they conduct alongside the artifacts they uncover in the field to explain their findings and provide rationale for their interpretations (e.g., determining an animal’s diet based on teeth, body size, condition of environment, etc.). Here, students engage in a similar process and provide explanations for their findings, while also using the benefit of hindsight to make recommendations for creating value through future improvement and innovation.
The attachments to this card include a schedule, possible products to conduct the "dig" on, assignment sheets, an example student paper, and a link to the ASEE paper published based on this work.
Note: we are open to feedback about this card and project! Please let us know what you think in the comments section!
After completing this project, students will be able to:
*Collect, record, analyze and interpret technical data to evaluate an object or system of engineering interest;
*Demonstrate curiosity about and articulate how the context (social, environmental, and economic) in which engineering is practiced impacts solutions and designs;
*Differentiate and make connections between the contributions of different engineers (majors and professions) in the development of a product, process or system;
*Function effectively on a team with individual and joint accountability;
*Communicate engineering concepts, ideas and decisions effectively in a variety of formats
Having a good understanding of the possible quantitative tests students will want to run on their products is critical to success because it allows the instructor and support staff to plan for the tools and equipment students might need. Recognizing the space requirements for certain tests and having a plan in place for accessing suitable space is also critical (e.g., if testing speakers, having a room with good sound dampening qualities could be useful).
After our first offering of this project in Fall 2018, we have decided to modify the rubrics to include "Background Research" rather than "Historical Research". We are also making a move away from the "Product Archaeology" terminology and towards Sustainability terminology, which we believe will be more useful for our students long-term.