SEED projects 2020 – Designing for learning
Innovation in mechanical design teaching through synthesis challenge
Dr David Wynn (Faculty of Engineering)
In mechanical design, synthesis refers to proposing a solution to a design (sub)problem. Basic design theory holds that synthesis is iterative and involves analysis and evaluation, i.e. analysis clarifies the current (sub)problem, synthesis creates a solution, and evaluation assesses that solution, informing future iterations. The process is underconstrained, allowing many solutions. Students must formulate mathematical models of emerging solutions, evaluate the implications, and derive insight to iteratively improve their design.
This project designed and introduced focused innovations in teaching synthesis in Part II design at the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The courses involve team design projects that require synthesis, but an approach was not yet in place to Explicitly teach synthesis, whose style of reasoning differs substantially from engineering analysis; Engage students through “synthesis challenges” with rapid feedback, and prompt students to reformulate their ability to solve closed-ended mathematical problems for use in design synthesis.
Teaching innovations of this project involve introducing students to design synthesis challenges and will develop their competence through a blended learning approach. Canvas was leveraged in an innovative way to enable automated assessment of design solutions and delivery of personalised feedback to the large class. Consider an example: Students previously learnt gear train physics and learn to analyse existing gear trains during lectures. This complemented with a new assignment in which students synthesise a gear train design that satisfies certain objectives and constraints. A visually engaging short animated video (produced e.g. using Animaker) explained pertinent design issues and constraints, showing that different solutions are possible, and suggested a design procedure.
Students reviewed the video, developing individually unique solutions (several hours) and submit defining parameters in a Canvas Quiz. An offline algorithm evaluated each unique design for physical correctness and design performance. Students received marks and automatically generated customised feedback about their individual solutions. The variety of solutions and their performances were discussed together at the next lecture, along with a model solution and solution process. Students gained synthesis experience and were more engaged during lectures because the discussed content will be focused on the design problem they recently experienced. A series of these “synthesis challenges” were introduced each covering a different technology and progressively increasing in difficulty. For constructive alignment, a synthesis-oriented question will be introduced into the exam.