Discipline Specific Assessment Methods
“Students get so much out of this experience. They tell me ‘This class is resume gold.’ ” -Dr. Denis Onen
ENEL 400: Electrical Engineering Design and Technical Communications is a design course for third year electrical and computer engineering students. The purpose of the course is to apply theory and build a functional prototype of an engineering design project. Dr. Denis Onen developed this course based on his experience working as a professional engineer. This is the first opportunity for many students to engage in a significant design and engineering project. It can be a challenge, but is an incredibly worthwhile experience. The course outline can be found here.
Students choose teams of 5-6 at the start of the semester. Dr. Onen provides some suggestions for projects that are challenging but doable with the skill set of third year students in the one semester time frame. However, students are free to choose what they would like to make, and the most teams easily agree on a creative idea. The teaching team, consisting of Dr. Onen, the teaching assistants and technicians, help students refine their ideas and make them feasible for the course. Students have to identify the problem that they are setting out to solve, and have to describe how the prototype they are designing will solve this problem. They have to be able to test the project to demonstrate that it meets its objective and does what it intends to do. They are also required to have a printed circuit board and an appropriate box or enclosure for their prototype. The students also create significant engineering documentation and hold design reviews and give presentations, which model real-world engineering activities.
The entire course is designed to be collaborative, as opposed to competitive. Grades are not assigned on a bell curve, so the success of one group does not impact the success of another. Students in each team are assigned different roles such as project manager, hardware lead, software lead, and testing lead. At each weekly lab period, leads in each position meet with one another and a teaching assistant or the instructor to discuss the status of each project. There are frequent opportunities for peer advice between leads as issues are identified. For example, students help one another select engineering software or find a manufacturer of printed circuit boards.
30% of the grade for the course comes from the final prototype, while the rest of the grades are divided between reports, reflections and presentations throughout the course. It is easy to grade the written assessments using standard methods and rubrics, but it is much harder to grade the projects. Since each team presents a different project, with varying levels of complexity, they cannot be graded in the same way. In order to ensure that grades are assigned fairly, Dr. Onen, the TAs and the techs discuss the various aspects of each project and how effectively it works as a whole. They consider the functionality, integration, enclosure and printed circuit board. The grading criteria explains each of these aspects in greater detail. The grade is determined holistically, so even if it is average in a couple of aspects, if others are exceptional, it will still receive a high grade.
Dr. Onen has been thoroughly impressed with what the students have to show at the end of the course. Examples of projects include heart rate monitors, aquaponics control systems and motorbike signal lights. The majority of students rise to the challenge of the project and produce high quality, functional prototypes. Less successful projects are often the result of difficult team dynamics and not embracing the support of the other teams, instructor, TAs and techs.
Students have a very positive experience in the course. They enjoy the process of seeing an idea turn into a design and eventually into a working prototype. There are several major benefits from this type of course for engineering students. Firstly, it gives them an opportunity to work in such a way that mirrors how work is done in the industry. When applying for internships and jobs, students can use this course as relevant experience, and have mentioned that their projects are “resume gold.” They have also mentioned that the project is valuable to talk about during interviews with potential employers who are interested in hearing about their design and documentation skills, as well as how they collaborate and work in a team. This course also prepares the students for their final year Capstone Design Course, which is a year-long, more advanced design project. Students can utilize their skills, experiences and connections from ENEL 400 in their capstone project. Having this experience makes the larger project course seem less intimidating and promotes successful projects.
Dr. Onen notes how many important skills are developed during this project. They are working and communicating with their team members, as well as the rest of the class and the teaching team. They are exposed to the process of designing, testing and improving a prototype, as well as how to report and document the process. Students have many opportunities throughout their degree to learn the knowledge they need, but being able to apply it is what will make them great engineers.
To read about how Dr. Onen assesses students in an online ethics course, click here