Educating future engineers is partially a matter of giving them what's known. The other part is getting them to come up with something new. Design fixation can make it hard to teach an old dog (engineers) new tricks (innovation).

The problem is that once engineering students know the current methods, they tend to mimic them in future design. This is not necessarily a bad thing as there are many good, well-established practices. To innovate and deliver the next wave of technology, out-of-the-box thinking is even better.

As reported in an Advances in Engineering Education article, "Although examples are now considered the cornerstone of the engineering design process, they can also negatively impact ideas development by fixating designers on the information contained within the example set.”

Product dissection, where students take apart a product to determine its design, can help engage students with the design process. There is another, important piece of the puzzle. A student’s personality traits will determine their level of engagement.

Studies have shown that dissection activities can help relate classroom material to “real-life” engineering problems, improve the effectiveness of instruction, and increase student engagement and enjoyment.

The dissection activity is usually a group affair. The many factors influencing team participation include motivation, status  and personality differences. The Five Factor Model breaks personality into five traits:

  • Neuroticism
  • Extraversion
  • Openness to experience
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness

Studies have found that team-based designs tend to be of a higher quality than individual efforts. It is important how these traits influence teamwork. Agreeableness lends itself to more engagement and cooperation while neuroticism tends to reduce cooperation. Extraversion is positively correlated with team performance while conscientiousness is negatively correlated.

There are no hard and fast rules in personality. Scoring low in factors that help team performance, like agreeableness, can actually lead someone to “go their own way,” which can lead to more creative design.

The article studied the dissection of electric toothbrushes. The students were required to take apart and redesign it to increase its portability. The study measured fixation by tracking the number of times a feature from the original design was incorporated into the redesign.

 

Although the dissection activity was found to reduce the fixation effect, personality traits did not clearly correlate across all aspects of the activity. As most teachers could tell you, when left to their own determination, some students will be more involved than others in group activities. The more engaged a student was, the less fixated they were on the original design.

To ensure equal experience in engineering education would require individual completion of each project. This is not a realistic way to prepare students for post-graduation expectations. Projects should engage each student separately while maintaining group communication and cooperation. This can help to distribute the responsibility and the educational benefit. In short, divide and conquer... then report back.

 

Images courtesy of AEE

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