Could Challenges be a powerful tool for teaching design skills?

Posted by Connie French on May 3, 2011 11:56:43 AM

We recently discovered that InnoCentive was being used as a teaching tool by Dr. Andrew Trivett P.Eng., Associate Professor at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown, PE.  We love this idea, and asked Dr. Trivett to tell us more about his class and the benefits of using InnoCentive Challenges to teach engineering students about design.

Many of you, particularly if you've studied engineering in the past 20 years in North America, have encountered the first-year “design project course”. Every university engineering department has one of these, and I confess, I've taught them myself. While they can be fun, I'm not a fan of the common “here's a box of junk, now go build something” projects. There is so much more we can do for students. My contrary opinion landed me in trouble a while back. I was invited to give a talk at a workshop for faculty on the subject of “teaching design”. In my talk, I showed pictures of first-year students working with industrial mentors on everything from waste sludge management at an electric generating plant to a low-cost eye-in-the-sky kite for photographing real-estate (yes, that's right...I said first-year students... the 18 year-olds we usually think of as too young and inexperienced for any real work) . My talk ended with the statement “ We try to show students that engineering is a career where we solve REAL, and IMPORTANT problems for REAL people... it isn't just silly, made-up problems like pick up this ping-pong ball and place it over there before the other team does”. Unfortunately, the next speaker at the workshop, an excellent professor in a large Canadian University, stood up to describe his class' project over the past year... you guessed it... it was “design a device to pick up a ping-pong ball and place it on the platform over there using this box of stuff”. Ouch...

So what's so wrong with the “box-of-junk” design projects for student engineers? After all, they give students experience with teamwork, they force them to employ basic physics in solving a problem, and to use limited resources to make something work, all of which are useful skills. They also reward creativity and attention to detail, both good attributes for future engineers.

Unfortunately, I believe they subtly tell would-be-engineers that the practice of engineering is silly and irrelevant. Which of us actually remembers the details of our first-year box-of-junk project anyway?

As a professor of engineering, my job is to introduce young men and women to a career path full of opportunity, pride and purpose. Since 2004, I've had the pleasure of being the very first university professor many of my students ever meet, having an 8:30 class with new first-year students on the first day of term. I invest a great deal of effort in showing the students that design and problem solving are crucial to the survival and advancement of our society. This is a pretty serious message. I've tried a number of different techniques for giving these students their first introduction to design, and to engineering. In 2009, I came upon InnoCentive.

Since first encountering InnoCentive, I have used the Seeker/Solver model to introduce engineering students to the idea that there are REAL Seekers out there who NEED solutions, and anyone, even a first-year student may have an important contribution. I recall the reaction from a student the first time I showed them InnoCentive in class. He told me at the end of lecture “Wow! I've never seen anything like this before! I just texted my friend who's not in this class, and he wants to get involved too!” The Challenges become a central component of teaching students how to develop technical ideas, how to evaluate alternatives, how to share technical information, and how to present ideas in a professional setting.

Here's how it goes: In the first few days of class students select a Challenge that attracts their interest. They do some background research and we meet to ask questions of each other. After a week or so to research and think about the Challenge, students are put together in groups, and explain to each other their solution ideas.

This sharing helps to develop those composite ideas that often become the best solutions. Over the next few weeks of the course, preparing the InnoCentive Challenge submission becomes the central focus. In order to explain their solutions, students carry out literature research, sketch their concepts using both hand drawing and Computer Aided Design tools, and try to write a clear explanation for the solution submission. For some Challenges, they may even build mock-ups and prototypes to test their ideas.

Through the process, they are provided with samples of several non-winning solutions of my own (since those are the ones to which I retain the IP rights).

At the end of four weeks, students submit their completed solutions to me as part of their course. It is not required that they actually submit the solutions to InnoCentive, but most do so. At the end of the semester, after another round of a more sophisticated project, the students who complete this first design course have had the experience of trying to actually DO design, rather than playing with boxes of random bits for a fictional problem. They end up with an appreciation of both the creativity required, and the importance of REAL engineering in the REAL world.

And we hope they are eager to do it again... only better.

Topics: Challenges

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