Gas station without pumps

2014 March 19

Last day of freshman design seminar

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 08:35
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Monday was the last day of class for the freshman design seminar, though I’ll see the students again on Thursday, when they turn in their final reports and show me what (if anything) they’ve managed to do on their prototypes.

I got their penultimate drafts yesterday, and I was a bit disappointed. A couple of the groups do not seem to have gotten the idea of revising drafts—they seem to have started from scratch on each draft and turned in yet another first draft. I don’t want them starting over each time—I want them to fix what they have and add more to it each time.  The drafts are still woefully lacking in detail. They mention calculations, then don’t show them to me (have they done them? I can’t tell). There are very few pictures of prototypes, schematics, or plots of theoretical results (like voltage as a function of temperature for their thermistor circuits).

Ah well, the results are not so bad that anyone is failing, and I think that the students have learned a lot this quarter, even if they can’t quite pull together a coherent report yet. I looks like everyone will be in the B– to B+ range, but I won’t know where until I see the final reports. Of course, if any group manages to build an even marginally functional prototype, their grades will go up, but the time constraints make that fairly unlikely at this point.

I did do an “exit survey” on the last day of class.  The survey was anonymous, and I don’t know the students’ handwriting or pen choices, so I really have no idea who wrote what. That means I can’t correlate anything with class performance or gender, but that is less important than getting honest responses through anonymity. Here are the questions and a brief summary of the answers (extracting a few key phrases from some of the longer answers and fixing some grammar):

  1.  As a result of this course, did your interest in bioengineering as a field increase, decrease, or stay about the same?
    Decrease: 2
    Same: 1
    Increase: 8So one of the main goals was successful. Neither of the students with a decrease in interest seemed to be bitter about the class—their answers on the other questions were helpful and indicated that the course had worked for them—they had just realized that bioengineering was not a good fit for them.
  2. Was the workload appropriate for a 2-unit course (about 6  hours/week, including class time)?  Too much? Too little?
    Too much: 5
    About right: 5
    Too little: 0
    One said “about right in the beginning, too much at the end”, which is what my sense was—the students left their prototyping and detailed design too late. I think I need to have an early deadline for a mockup at least, so that they get into the details of the design sooner. There was too much “big picture” thinking and not enough getting down to details.Note that the “too much work” did not correlate with the increase/decrease of interest in bioengineering.  Also, the “about right” group were spread out from “could have a little more” to “bordering on too much”.
  3. Did any of your skills (web search, technical reading, technical writing, subdividing problems, design, prototyping, programming,  working in groups, … ) improve as a result of this course? If  so, which ones?
    Web search: 5
    Finding parts on the web: 1
    Finding data sheets: 1
    Researching online: 1
    Technical reading: 3
    Working in groups: 2
    Prototyping: 6
    Engineer way of thinking: 1
    Design: 3
    Dividing problems into subproblems: 3
    Programming: 6
    3D software skills: 1
    Writing proposals: 1
    Report writing: 1
    Technical writing: 1Students seemed to get at least some of what I hoped for from the class, but I think I’ll want to increase both the programming and prototyping next year. Those seem to have been memorable for students, and we didn’t do enough of either one.
  4. What were the most important or interesting things you learned as a result of this class?Program the Arduino
    Using Arduino and other electronic hardware
    Prototyping, writing, dividing problems into subproblems.
    A project can be divided in a group.
    Class made me think in a way I never thought before.
    What engineers do with a data sheet, how they make design reports, also advice on classes to take.
    Details of how instruments work (spectrometer, colorimeter, and projects for class)—interesting to find out how common appliances like light switches, thermostats, … work.
    Steps and processes for designing a bioengineering tool.
    How to be an engineer.
    Introduction to programming.
    The World of Data Sheets.

    Again, a lot saw the intro to programming as very valuable, despite how little we spent on it. I think that component would be worth increasing next year (assuming that the class composition is similar).

  5. What worked well in the class and should be retained next year?Learning to program Arduino and hooking up parts to it.
    Pushing us to do research on our own.
    Prototyping, though we didn’t get to finish. Also more programming assignments.
    Introduction of different topics in the beginning of class worked well. I’m not sure what is meant by that.
    Beginning with spectrometer then building to more complex design concepts.
    The Arduino should be brought up again.
    Designs of spectrometer and colorimeter should be retained next year.
    Teaching the process of how to build spectrometers.
    The project; programming; critical thinking.
    Work with Arduinos.
    I’d been concerned about the spectrometers taking up som much time at the beginning, when students started out not knowing what they were. But it seems to have been memorable, so we might do a little more with it next year. I might want to start with a simpler colorimeter, though, then work up to a spectrometer.
  6. What worked poorly and should be discarded or greatly modified?Designing spectrometers and colorimeters was cool but it barely related to our final project.
    A more set lecture plan would give us more information about programming.
    The timing is planned poorly. With better management the class could achieve more.
    The class could be more organized and better suited to freshmen.
    Beginning the actual design sooner.
    The class didn’t seem to have any learning objectives.
    More background and basics on programming, machines, circuitry, and just overall expectations.
    The final projects should be more narrow choices, so they don’t take so much time to build.
    The workload is too much.
    Design the colorimeter before the spectrometer.
    Too much time spent writing up designs without a “contract to fail”—it’s the failures and mistakes you make that make you a better designer/engineer.

    Most of the negatives were about planning and organization. The timing for the course was not really planned—I was feeling my way through the course, trying to figure out what they knew already and what they needed. Everything took much longer than I expected, because I kept overestimating their knowledge, skills, and independence. I’ll have better timing next year, when I should have a better idea what to expect.

    I agree that the simpler colorimeter should come before the spectrometer. I think that I’ll have them do a physical mockup of a colorimeter out of cardboard or foamcore and develop the sensing circuitry and Arduino interface sooner.

    I also agree that starting the projects earlier and having more guidance on the project choices would be helpful. Unfortunately, the day they picked projects was the one where I was ill, and the group tutor guided them to more ambitious projects than I would have (ones he wanted to do as a senior, I suspect).

    I bristled a little bit about the “didn’t seem to have any learning objectives”. If anything, I had far too many objectives (see the skills list in question 3). I suppose that students who are used to a highly structured school where every lesson is tied to a particular content standard may have more trouble with learning objectives that are more about increasing their independent learning than about specific content. I did try to make it clear to students that my goal was to shift their way of thinking and to increase their ability to learn independently rather than to impart any specific content. We got a fair amount of content in anyway, though it was a rather randomly assorted mix of big engineering concepts and little factoids—the factoids were mainly to support whatever design task we were currently facing and there were a lot of them (because engineering is often about the details).

    I’m torn about the “more background” request. I think that they could indeed have achieved more if I’d given them more scaffolding, and there were a few times when I felt that I should have given them a bit more. But a big chunk of what I was trying to do was to shake them out of the “echo what the teacher said” mode that they’ve had drilled into them for the past 12 years. I was trying to get them to realize that they can learn things by finding the information themselves and reading it. But I do need to give them some more help in the beginning on learning how to find information, which means having the reference librarians give them a good search lesson early in the quarter. I should probably also put together some more search-and-learn exercises, like the ones I had about finding and reading data sheets.

  7. There are a lot of changes in the course that I’d like to see,  but I’d like to know what changes you’d like to see.
    More physical designs and fewer write-ups.
    More background on circuitry and programming. Often found myself working considerably more than 6 hours a week to fully research a field/skill to understand how to design a project. This is beneficial in terms of teaching students independence and accountability, but it does result in a heavier than expected workload for a 2-unit course.
    Less work, more time on the project.
    Make it a 5-unit course so that students have time to learn properly.
    Make class half lecture half discussion. Final projects should be started earlier.
    Design projects should start earlier in the quarter.
    Have students keep a design journal. Begin the design sooner.
    More organization. More in-depth lectures. More explanations of expectations. More interaction with other students. More time spent on project (start earlier).
    Start project earlier, introduce resources first, and focus on one project.
    Need access to tools and a space to prototype in.
    Start on design project sooner so we have enough time to put together a decent prototype.

    I agree whole-heartedly with the need to start prototyping the project sooner. But just starting earlier wouldn’t really solve the problem. Many students played around with vague ideas for weeks and didn’t start looking at parts until the last week of the quarter. It might help if we had some physical prototyping before they selected a project, and if I required a non-functional mockup the week after they selected their design goal. Giving them a schedule with deadlines for various tasks that includes sufficient lead time for ordering parts would probably help—they still need scaffolding for time management and project planning.

    I had originally planned to have the whole class focus on one project, in competing/cooperating teams, but my illness on the day they selected projects and inadequate communication between me and the group tutor resulted in him encouraging three different projects. The students may have been more interested in the particular projects they selected, but it meant that whole-class discussions of project status and how to tackle design problems were less fruitful—people tended to tune out on when other projects were discussed.

    I’m not going to cut back on the write-ups, though. The students seriously need a lot more work on their writing. I don’t think that the writing instructors on campus have a clue about technical writing, so aren’t providing them the practice and feedback that they need. The huge lecture classes in beginning science and engineering don’t help either—they again get almost no writing practice with feedback.

    I had thought about the possibility of making this a 5-unit course, but there isn’t really room for another 5-unit course in their schedules—delaying their foundation courses needed to declare the major would not be a service to them. A 2-unit course added to their 15–17 units normally taken is about all there is room for, unless some other course were removed from their schedules. In the curriculum redesign this year, I already pared out as many beginning courses as I could to make room for more advanced courses—I don’t think that this course is high enough value to remove one of the more advanced ones.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the feedback from the class. They got a lot of the things out of the class, even though it only represents about 1% of their college education (2 units out of about 200 for engineering students). The things they criticized were mostly things that I found fault with myself: insufficient physical prototyping, needing more time teaching circuits and programming, needing better scheduling.  The tone of the feedback seemed positive to me (and I’m unduly sensitive to negative feedback), so I’m going to tentatively declare the class successful.  I’ll be re-reading these notes next December, when I’m putting together the syllabus and web page for next year’s offering.

The feedback did not take up the full class slot—we also had time for some whole-group discussion of status and group meetings for trying to finalize the projects.

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