Developing Objectives for a Design Course

Wallace Venable, Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, West Virginia University

1984 Frontiers In Education Conference Proceedings


In some ways, the actual teaching of an engineering design course seems sinfully easy. You give students a few assignments, and grade a few reports. There is little to do in the way of selecting texts or preparing lectures. You spend most of your class time in informal interaction, and your students seek you out outside class for advice. For the teacher who views design as the fundamental activity of the engineer, and who enjoys watching students in creative activity, it looks like a highly pleasurable experience.

At the same time, planning a design course can be a thoroughly trying experience. A new instructor may take over a course with little guidance other than a small file of project descriptions from past semesters. If one has a sample of both assignment sheets and reports, it may not be too hard to understand both what students were expected to do, and how well they did it, but it will probably be impossible to tell what the students were expected to learn. Frequently the "content" of the design course is material which has been covered on lectures and exams in previous semesters. On hearing that some ABET visitors look askance at the introduction of "new material" in a design course, come instructors conclude that it is simply a time for review and games.

The actual course can also be a very trying time for both students and instructors. Students may feel that assignments are poorly defined and maliciously graded. They may frequently be frustrated by lack of information, materials, and equipment, by the failure of systems to perform as predicted and by other unforeseen pitfalls.

Instructors may wonder how students can have "forgotten" so much, how students can overlook the "obvious", and how students can be so slow in finishing.

The root of many of these problems is that the objectives of design instruction are primarily in the "affective", or attitudinal, domain, while most other engineering instruction is in the "cognitive", or knowledge, domain. Krathwohl, 1 Bloom, 2 and Mager 3 were the leaders in establishing ways of characterizing and classifying instructional objectives. For the purposes of this paper, the primary categories might be summarized as follows:

Cognitive Domain

Affective Domain

Discussions of the design process often stress its "open ended" nature. However, despite the fact that there may be many possible solutions to a design project, there is generally a "best" solution. This solution is defined by the way it is mated to specific, and often unstated, constraints, and by the system of values against which it is judged. The establishment of these values is the result of activity in the affective domain.

Assignment to a Design Course

For about fifteen years the author's teaching assignments were in engineering mechanics service courses. The coverage of these courses is well defined by textbooks of similar content, and the level of difficulty appropriate for a class court be established by reference to departmental examinations and to "external" examinations such as the Engineer-In-Training (EIT)/Engineering Intern (EI) test for professional registration. Reference to instructional objectives in preparing schedules, lessons, and examinations become a regular habit.

About two years ago the author was asked to teach a sophomore level course, "Introduction to Mechanical Engineering"' for the first time. The course had no text or syllabus, carried two hours credit, and was listed under the "design" category on the Department 's ABET report. In recent history, the course hat been based on several small design projects, but no instructor could give much guidance other than to describe projects he had used. Each instructor "knew" what he had in mint, but there was little to articulate this knowledge.

This article is an attempt to put on paper the objectives which the author has identified for his version of "Introduction to Mechanical Engineering Design." It is based on four or five projects selected to introduce students to several areas of mechanical engineering including kinematics, mechanical energy, heat and power, fluid mechanics, and computer modeling of systems. Projects result in both hardware prototypes and written reports, and grades are based on actual product performance as well as written work.

As is common in project courses, the course is designed to provide opportunities for students to develop skills through guided practice, rather than through instruction per se.

"Recognition" As An Instructional Outcome

One way in which design exercises often differ from analytical coursework is in the manner in which problem assignments are given. Frequently design assignments are given in a "story" or correspondence format. These may require students to find a hidden problem or even to "create" a problem relates to the context. They may also require students to recognize unstated constraints, or missing information. Objectives related to this area include:

Recognizing a well defined problem embedded in a background story.

Such an exercise requires students to distinguish between signal and noise, as is tone in "word problems" in mathematics. It is not a new skill for engineering sophomores, but may be difficult if the problem itself is multifaceted or requires several different types of response.

Recognizing a problem area embedded in a background story.

Students are often asked to create and solve a problem appropriate to a getting contrived by an instructor. For example, a story relating drastic increases in energy costs might generate solutions aimed at reducing energy usage, changing operations to a lower cost fuel, or increasing income to cover costs.

Recognizing social, environmental or economic constraints on a technical solution.

Students are often expected to develop their own fiat of non-technical restrictions on a solution to even well defined problems.

Recognizing inadequate prior training for the project at hand.

Projects may be chosen so as to lead students to the acquisition of new knowledge or skills. Instructors may prepare such instruction in advance and give it on request, or develop it on an at hoc basis, or may expect students to use self-directed study.

"Voluntary Response" As An Instructional Outcome

In courses in engineering science, many teachers provide little reward for voluntary response. Grades are generally based on required homework and examinations. For many students the required homework provides sufficient practice for examinations. Seldom is it necessary to seek additional materials. In fact, the moves over the last decade toward "individualized instruction" have probably reduced the amount of "voluntary" effort required of most students.

Design courses, on the other hand, are often managed in ways which stimulate students to generate responses which are only loosely pre-planned by the instructor. Objectives related to this area include:

Searching for documentary information not included in the initial assignment.

This may consist of reference to textbooks, or to library research.

Searching for information using survey methods.

In many problems, students may only be able to obtain critical information by visiting sites or machines and taking data from measurement and observations.

Searching for components or materials needed to complete a project.

This may include reference to catalogs or other sales information or to "shopping" in stores or stockrooms.

Obtaining information through experience.

Some design projects may be designed to stimulate students to conduct short research projects, or at least to conduct tests of demonstration apparatus.

Testing of multiple or modified prototypes.

In projects which have hardware as a final project, students may go through a process of refining a design concept even after producing a first working version.

Participation in group activities.

Desired group participation may include both leadership activity and carrying out individual detailed responsibilities.

Questioning of states assumptions limiting solutions.

Students should test the necessity of assumptions which may be stated or implied in the initial problem outline if a change in restrictions would permit a better solution.

"Satisfaction" As An Instructional Outcome

In the higher levels of the affective domain, engineering educators run into two problems. First, the achievement of an instructional objective may be difficult or impossible to evaluate. Certainly the direct measurement of a students satisfaction is one of these, although there may be ways to infer it. In addition, there may be some question as to whether students should be taught to be satisfied with certain results, or instead, whether activities should be developed which help them decide whether or not they will find satisfaction in an engineering career.

Despite these difficulties, several sorts of objectives in this area may be established. These include:

Satisfaction with a design which meets fixes criteria.

A design which fulfills stated objective criteria should be a source of satisfaction for its developers, even if it is not fount to be the best of all similar designs in a competitive situation.

Satisfaction with a design which performs well in a competitive situation.

Such a design should, of course, meet objectives criteria as well, and-not be Just the best of an unacceptable lot.

Satisfaction derived from the originality of a solution.

If student's creativity is to be sustained beyond college, it must rely on self-reinforcement as well on external reward.

Perhaps there should also be some concern with helping students to develop a sense of dissatisfaction in some situations. In particular there should be attention to the following:

Dissatisfaction with a design which does not deliver required performance.

Sometimes these feelings should be discouraged if performance requirements are unreasonable.

"Acceptance" As An Instructional Outcome

Part of what design projects to is to help students to learn to accept new standards for their behavior. Instructors attempt to introduce the standards of "the real world of engineering," in contrast to the standards of school systems. While students are not necessarily required to hold the same values as their professional mentors, they are expected to conduct their work in accordance with these standards.

Some of the values of the engineering profession which students are asked to accept include:

Accepting product performance as the basis for success or failure.

Students have learned to expect rewards based on effort or conceptual results, and have difficulty accepting failure because something broke or malfunctioned. Some students have particular trouble when others receive higher grades as the result of "dumb luck" rather than intellectual ability.

Accepting ambiguity in assignments.

Students have become accustomed to problems which are fully defined, and feel that it is "unfair" when assignments contain ambiguities.

Accepting responsibility for organizing group efforts.

Design teamwork requires that students accept responsibility for defining and conducting individual activities needed to meet a desired goal.

Accepting payoff for group efforts.

Students often must accept individual grades which are based on a group products. Some feel they should not suffer if a defect is due to another's individual efforts.

"Organizing Values" As An Instructional Outcome

One of the reasons why student design projects may be required to meet several sets of criteria is that multiple requirements force students to organize a "value system." The varying, or conflicting, requirements may all be technical in nature including such factors as cost-performance tradeoffs. They may also involve social or aesthetic considerations to be applied to the design.

To the extent that the instructor's criteria explicitly define the relative weights to be placed on cost, weight, etc., students are given examples of formal structuring of values. As evaluation of designs becomes more judgmental, students must set their own design priorities.

Listing priorities of various design requirements.

Students may be required to make an explicit list of their ordering or design requirements either during design development or a part of a design presentation.

Challenging a list of design requirements.

Students should be expected to apply their own value system to proposed projects as well as use it in detailed design procedures.

Concluding Comments

Instructional objectives are written to clarify the teaching process and to help establish agreement on course management. Experienced instructors often say that they learn nothing new from reading them, and that they simply list what has been standard practice. Perhaps, in many cases their preparation adds nothing new to the field.

That may well be true with the objectives stated in this paper. They are principally a summary of the author's past practice, and may well have been used by others for decades.

A major purpose in making explicit statements of objectives is so that team members may make realistic decisions as to whether or not "the things we all know go into the course" are, in fact a single list. Often it happens that explicit statements are the only way to identify areas of important disagreement.

The list of objectives presented here are solely the work of the author, and not necessarily those of this department or colleagues. It is expected that they will be useful in helping to define a departmental consensus through their common acceptance or rejection.


  1. Krathwohl, D. R., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook II: Affective Domain, David McKay Co., New York, 1956.
  2. Bloom, B. S.,, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain, David McKay Co., New York, 1956.
  3. Mager, R. F., Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearon Publishers, Palo Alto, 1962.

Wallace S Venable - Wally Venable is Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at West Virginia University. He is an author of programmed instruction al materials and over thirty publications on engineering education. He is active in ASEE, having serves as Chairman of the ERM Division and as a member of the ASEE Board of Directors.