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Developing a different way of thinking

Design engineering approaches learning differently to other engineering units. It trains students to think and reflect differently to resolve design problems. This narratives expands on the approach. More...

I teach engineering design units to third and fourth year engineering students.  Currently, I coordinate more than 200 students, most of whom are studying design for the first time.  Many find design difficult and do not enjoy it because it involves developing a different way of thinking.  Students must frame and define a problem presented to them using the engineering principles previously learnt, before analysing and working through the steps to solve it.  To assess understanding and to track the success, or otherwise, of my approach I devise frequent on-line surveys.  This enables me to identify the complainers and address their particular concerns.

During class I keep my delivery short.  Some students do not like this because they expect me to talk to them throughout the session.  However, I encourage them to work on a problem I present to them during class and ask questions of me while I am there.  The instant feedback I give them helps shape their thinking and build understanding.  Initially, only a few students remained but numbers are building as they realise the value of this approach.  Thinking and reflecting on their designs is very important. When a design is completed, I ask students to write a report which they then share with three other students to assess and give them feedback.  Comparing design solutions with others enables students to evaluate their own and, in my view, helps them become better design engineers.  These approaches also enable them to step back and consider how they want to respond in a situation instead of simply reacting.  Students have told me that learning this skill is ‘cool’.

It is difficult to find sessional staff experienced in design.  Ideally, I select those who have worked in industry but not all of them are up to date with the theory.  I explain to them that it is important for them to teach a way of thinking rather than content.  I meet with my tutors every week and encourage them to respond to student questions with further questions that will challenge them.  In our meetings we practice this by sharing and challenging our different perspectives.  Managing my time is an issue but I have learnt that I achieve the most when I am able to avert other distractions and focus 100% on just one activity at a time.

I gain great satisfaction from seeing my students develop, especially when I try something new and gain positive feedback.  My role is to enable students to gain a qualification they are happy with and that they can apply out in industry.  I also like helping students to feel capable and better about themselves, and to become good engineers.  Not all students are aware that this is my intention, so I tell them up front.

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