Using prototypes to improve undergraduate engineering communication skills

Samantha Chavanic
August 29, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Prototypes serve as more than the first model of a product — they also are valuable communication tools between team members, external stakeholders and end-users. While prior work has demonstrated that professional engineers frequently rely on prototypes to communicate, preliminary data suggests that undergraduate engineering students struggle to use prototypes effectively. There is no lack of calls for engineers to communicate more clearly; however, most communication competencies at the undergraduate level focus on technical writing and research presentations.

To bridge the gap between the visual communication favored by industry and the technical writing taught to undergraduates, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded researchers at Penn State $300,000 to develop a curriculum and educational tools targeted at improving prototyping communications at the undergraduate level. 

Principal investigator (PI) Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, will lead the three-year project. Menold and her team plan to provide a new understanding of what leads undergraduates to make and use prototypes, as well as how that process connects to industry operations. Catherine Berdanier, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Christopher McComb, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, serve as co-PIs on the project. 

After noticing some of her undergraduate students struggling to verbally describe design concepts, Menold realized it is necessary to develop an evidence-based curriculum to help undergraduates effectively leverage prototypes as communication tools. The first step was for the research team to investigate the communicative strategies undergraduates employ during design and identifying any trends that may lend insights to curriculum development. 

“Communication in all its forms is critical for engineers to excel in; it doesn’t matter how smart a person is or how innovative a solution is if it can’t be communicated to other engineers, supervisors, stakeholders and the public,” Berdanier said. “Without fundamentally understanding how engineering students are currently using their prototypes as communicative mechanisms, it’s difficult to develop impactful ways to help students improve.”

According to Menold, prototypes help ensure team members are working from the same page, while also aiding the design team in communicating decisions or progress to key stakeholders.

“People often say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ and in design, prototypes are worth a thousand words,” she said.  

Because of the importance prototypes play in the engineering design process, Berdanier stressed the need for technical communication education in undergraduate engineering curriculum. 

“We posit that technical communication skills, especially those using prototypes to communicate, are actually a core competency for engineers and therefore, engineering education,” she said. “It is here that our foundational research objectives begin.”

After a preliminary investigation examining students’ communicative strategies during prototyping, the researchers found that when a prototype “fails” students often blame external factors for the failure, even when poor design decisions are actually the culprit.

“The communicative strategies found in the pilot study pose a significant problem for engineering students transitioning to industry, as attributing failure to external factors, imposing unnecessary design constraints or overselling a project’s success are not likely to be tolerated in professional settings,” Menold said.

The team’s NSF-sponsored project, which aims to combat this startling trend, consists of three phases: data collection, data analysis, and developing machine learning algorithms based on the analysis. Data collection will continue throughout the project to ensure adequate data is gathered for the machine learning algorithm training. 

During the data collection phase, researchers will approach senior-level student design teams displaying projects at the College of Engineering Design Showcase held each semester, for the duration of the project. With participants’ consent, the research team will record the students’ pitches, capturing verbal and visual communications, including the use of prototypes. 

McComb explained that studying the pitches is one way for the researchers to assess how students currently use verbal argumentation and prototyping strategies and how to expand on their knowledge. 

“The more we can merge the verbal communication skills of our undergraduate students with their physical prototyping skills, the more prepared they will be to function as lifelong learners after graduation,” he said. 

To analyze the audio and video recordings of each student team, the researchers will develop a coding schema and rubric to identify verbal and thematic indicators and rate pitch and prototype design quality. They will also compare the scored pitches and solutions to the students’ surveys and their own initial assessments to determine if there are statistical differences between students’ perceptions of their own pitches and the research team’s evaluations. This will lay the foundation for future work exploring the utility of real-time, personalized feedback leveraging the initial coding scheme and findings from this grant. Ultimately, the ability to provide personalized, real-time feedback will improve design decision-making through enhanced communication, leading to advanced design quality. 

“Complex problems like cybersecurity and global warming are becoming more prevalent, and engineers are situated to build solutions to address those problems,” McComb said. “Being able to communicate the utility of those solutions to a wider audience is just as important as building them in the first place.”

  • Two women and one man sit at a table and smile.

    Berdanier, left; Menold, middle; and McComb, right, will work to develop a curriculum and educational tools targeted at improving prototyping communications at the undergraduate level. 

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated September 04, 2019