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Research in Info. Science for Engineering

Research in Info. Science for Engineering

(RiSE)

A Case Study in Entrepreneurially-Minded Learning

Background

MAE 1024 Introduction to Mechanical Engineering is a freshman-level course that provides an overall exposure to the ME curriculum and profession.  In addition to teaching basic technical and communication skills, such as technical drawing, freehand sketching, CAD/CAM tools, technical computing, public speaking, and report writing, a majority of the course load comes from a term-long engineering project.   RiSE director Dr. Sen is the instructor of this foundations course in Mechanical Engineering.

The “before’ picture

Traditionally, the term project asked the students to design and build a technical product that included some elements of entertainment, which was deemed necessary in order to hold students’ interest and attention.  The problem was assigned by the instructor and it was the same for all student teams in the class.  The product to be designed and built was picked by the instructor.  Since the assignment was not presented as a problem faced by a segment of customers that needs to be solved, it did not necessarily force the student to see engineering as a means to serve humanity or customers by creating value for them.  Example projects are pinball machines and a robot-played soccer game.

KEEN and EML

The directors of the RiSE and STRIDE research groups, Drs. Sen and Morkos, along with faculty and deans from the College of Engineering and College of Business, won an institutional grant from the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network, a national network of like-minded engineering schools supported by the Kern Family Foundation, to bolster engineering teaching with an entrepreneurial mindset.  Drs. Sen received formal training in entrepreneurially-minded learning (EML) teaching techniques from the network.

The “after” picture

In the light of EML, the project was modified in the following ways.

1.    Instead of a product to be designed, students were given a socio-technical scenario of common interest and global importance, to which everyone could connect easily.  In Fall 2015, the topic was energy – an issue of great importance to engineering that also has social, economic, and political significance.  The scenario was explained in the context of the increased global energy demand, depleting fossil fuel reserves, increased emphasis on low-emission and alternate sources, and the increased public awareness of global climate change.   

2.   Student teams were not given a specific design problem to solve.  Rather, they were asked to choose the area of energy-related issues that they wanted to address, and define their own design problem. 

3.   Student teams were asked to do their own self-guided research to study the technical and social challenges related to the area, and compare the various areas and project ideas before choosing one.  Their challenge must be solvable in a term’s timeline!

The first deliverable was not a traditional design concept, but a proposal, where students had to demonstrate their understanding of the social and technical issues of the technology of their choice, along with their approach toward addressing it.  The teams must demonstrate that they visited multiple ideas before choosing one, they must build a case for how their work, if fully implemented, would create value for the customer.

What changed?

With these changes done, each student team picked a different problem.  Each team had different questions and different hurdles, although they were ultimately connected to the same theme of energy.  The usual variation between the quality of student work still existed across the teams, but the students’ experience was a novel one.  They were forced to think about and ask question about issues that reach beyond technical knowledge into the realm of utility and value of their work, the state of the art of technologies and their limitations from social, environmental, economic, and political points of view, and the role of engineers as a social problem-solver and value-creator.  They experienced the difference between force-fittings a technical novelty into an artificially defined market and choosing the right technology for developing a solution for a true need felt in a market.  They had to find ways to answer these questions independently, relying on the team, rather than on the professor.  The resulting projects ranged from wave energy generators to regenerative braking of skateboards, to road surfaces that produce electricity, to children’s shoes that power a light bulb at night in developing economies, to cell phones that recover its heat to extend its own battery life.  Some examples are shown below.

Examples of projects

Wave energy generator 1

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See this in action here: https://youtu.be/lv9P8-zGa_c

Wave energy generator 2

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See this in action here: https://youtu.be/qIVCmRyK5Zg

Solar-human-powered bike-mounted vaccine delivery system for remote locations

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Road surface that produces electricity from the thermal difference between the hot asphalt and the ground water table

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Thermoelectric recovery of cell phone energy

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Regenerative braking of skateboards

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Wave-driven beachside drink cooler

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