Using Engineering Design Prototypes to Improve the Communication and Argumentation Skills of Undergraduate Engineering Students

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project aims to serve the national interest by improving the ability of engineering students to communicate effectively. Given the ill-defined, complex, and increasingly technical nature of engineering design, engineers must be able to explain the design rationale behind complex systems. However, most communication competencies at the undergraduate level focus on technical writing and research presentations. This work investigates the relationship between design prototypes and communication competencies. A growing body of research points to the importance of prototypes during the engineering design process, particularly as communication tools. However, the potential use of prototypes to help undergraduates learn how to communicate effectively has not been well explored. This project will bridge this gap by characterizing the communication strategies of undergraduate engineering students. It will then leverage the results of this research to guide improvements to the engineering curriculum, including development of evidence-based curriculum and educational tools to help students more effectively explain, defend, and advocate for specific design decisions.

This Engaged Student Learning project includes a multiple-methods research study to investigate engineering students who undertake prototyping activities in team-based capstone design courses, and to characterize their verbal communication strategies when 'pitching' prototypes to a design review panel. It is predicted that this data will be valuable for understanding the changes in language and disciplinary discourse students use as they become socialized as members of their engineering discipline. This research also seeks to understand student perceptions of this transition. The project has guiding four research questions: (1) How do students communicate their design intent and project outcomes using prototypes? (2) To what factors do students attribute success or failure of design solutions when communicating design intent with prototypes? (3) To what extent are students aware of their communicative patterns using prototypes? and (4) What methods can be developed to enable peer-to-peer formative feedback? This project is supported by the NSF Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Program: Education and Human Resources, which supports research and development projects to improve the effectiveness of STEM education for all students. Through the Engaged Student Learning track, the program supports the creation, exploration, and implementation of promising practices and tools.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date7/15/196/30/23


  • National Science Foundation: $300,000.00


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