Author: Yeh-Liang Hsu, (1997-08-19);
approved: Yeh-Liang Hsu (2000-05-18).
Note: This paper is published in Journal of Engineering Education,
January 1998, Vol. 87, No. 1, pp. 47-51.
Teaching mechanical design to a
large class: A report from Taiwan
widely existing in current mechanical design courses in Taiwan is that
it is constraining with respect to manpower, facilities, and/or budget, to have
mechanical design projects in the current large-class setting. This paper
presents a course model dealing with this problem. The goal is to provide
students the tools and environment to experience design. This model was quite
successful when implemented in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Yuan
Ze University, Taiwan, where I teach a junior-level mechanical design course
having more than one hundred students in two sections.
Design” is a one-year, junior-level required course in most mechanical
engineering departments of the universities in Taiwan. Students taking this course
usually have just completed the major background courses in mechanical
engineering (e.g., statics, dynamics, strength of materials, thermodynamics),
with no formal training in engineering synthesis.
There is almost
general agreement that using student projects is a good, even necessary, means
to “teach” design. One important reason for using student projects in design
courses is to provide students a means for “experiential learning.” Many
aspects of design, such as problem solving, creativity, team cooperation, to
name just a few, cannot be taught by lectures, textbooks, and problem sets.
Students have to learn these aspects of design by actually doing design,
experiencing design. Faste, Roth, and Wilde of Stanford University made a rather
strong statement about design projects and design courses : “We believe that
any course without student projects is not a design course. That does not mean
such a course is bad or should not be offered, or that it is not of value to
design education, we just mean it is not a design course. It certainly can be
about design, but it is not a design course.”
Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) of the United States
has called for integrating the design experience across the engineering
curriculum. The ABET evaluations of engineering programs review the integration
of design content and practice throughout the curriculum, including
introductory, intermediate, and advanced classes. ABET requires institutions to
examine their present approach to design to be sure the design experience is a
comprehensive and integral part of the education process .
engineering design education does not receive equal attention in the
universities of Taiwan.
In most Taiwan
mechanical engineering departments, “mechanical design” is still viewed as just
a regular, stand-alone course. It is usually not integrated with any other
courses, and the resources available to the mechanical design course are no
more than that to a regular lecture course, e.g., strength of materials.
Therefore, one problem widely existing in current mechanical design courses in Taiwan is that
it is taxing with respect to manpower, facilities, and/or budget to have
mechanical design projects in the current large-class setting. A great portion
of the junior-level mechanical design courses in Taiwan are still purely lecture
courses instead of being project-based.
research has been done in the area of engineering design education. Subjects
such as defining the goals and format of engineering design courses [2-4],
different styles and approaches of teaching engineering design courses [5, 6],
how to use design projects , how to assign students to groups for design
projects and the dynamics of design groups [1, 8], to name just a few, have
been carefully studied. But to the author's knowledge, few papers if any have
been published specifically on teaching engineering design courses to a large
class with limited resources, a very common situation here in Taiwan.
This paper presents
a course model that attempts to address this problem. Section Two presents the
results of a questionnaire that surveys the current situations of mechanical
design courses in Taiwan.
Sections Three and Four describe the course model in detail; then Section Five
discusses the feedback from students experimenting with this model in the
Mechanical Engineering Department, Yuan Ze University, Taiwan. Finally, Section
Six gives a general discussion of the more fundamental issues regarding design
education in Taiwan.
II. Junior-level mechanical design courses in Taiwan
the current situation of the junior-level mechanical design courses in
universities in Taiwan,
a questionnaire was designed and distributed to all universities and four-year
technical colleges. This questionnaire was specifically sent to professors who
are currently teaching a junior-level mechanical design course. A total of 42
questionnaires were sent out, and 34 (81.0 percent) responded.
this survey, in the universities in Taiwan, a typical size of the
junior-level mechanical design class is 40 to 49 students (44.9 percent), and
38.8 percent of the design classes have a size of over 50 students. Moreover,
50.0 percent of the professors responding to the questionnaire are teaching two
to three sections in the same semester. That is, half of the professors have
more than one hundred students in their design courses in the same semester.
surprising fact is that, only 40.0 percent of the mechanical design courses in Taiwan use
design projects. Among the classes which do not have design projects, 44.4
percent have a required design project course in their senior year, 22.2
percent have an optional design project course in their senior year, while 33.3
percent do not have any other design project courses.
When asked about
the possible difficulties of having design projects in their mechanical design
courses, the professors' top three choices listed on the questionnaire were
“lack of budget and proper environment” (72.7 percent), “the size of the class
is too big” (66.7 percent), and “the professors do not have enough time” (45.5
percent). The professors also responded with several other difficulties that
were not listed on the questionnaire, including “course time is not enough to
cover the material and finish the projects” (12.1 percent), “manufacturing
difficulties” (12.1 percent), “students are not willing to spend time on design
projects” (9.1 percent).
It is also very
interesting to know what subjects are being taught in the mechanical design
courses. According to the survey, there seems to be no standard content for the
junior-level mechanical design course. Ten subjects were listed on the
questionnaire, and each subject was taught by at least 12.1 percent of the professors.
Mechanical component design, which is a more “traditional” subject taught in
the junior-level mechanical design courses, is taught by 93.9 percent of the
professors. Other popular subjects include structural analysis (51.5 percent),
design drawings and documentation (36.4 percent), and system design methodology
(31.3 percent). The content of the mechanical design courses seem to be closely
related to the specialty of the professor who is teaching it.
questionnaire and the statistics of the answers to each question are listed in
III. Building a design tool box
I have taught a
junior-level mechanical design course for five years. Each year I have two
sections, with a total of more than one hundred students. There is only one
graduate teaching assistant assigned to the course, and other resources are
also quite limited. In the second year I taught this course, I started to
develop a new course model for such a large class.
First the goal
of the design course is defined. Instead of trying to define design, ABET 
describes activities and processes that may be included in design. Design,
n Produces a
system, component, or process to meet a specific need.
n Is an iterative
process that utilizes decision making with economics and employs mathematical,
scientific, and engineering principles.
n Includes some of
the following: setting objectives, analysis, synthesis, evaluation,
construction, testing, and communication of results.
n Has student
problems that are often open-ended, require use of design methodology and
creative problem solving, require formulation of the problem statement and an
economic comparison of alternate solutions, and may require detailed system
From this description of design, a
variety of possible goals for a mechanical design course can be generated. The
goal our design course strives to achieve is simple and clear: to provide
students the tools and environment to experience design, despite our limited
resources. The design tools include engineering domain knowledge and design
methodologies. By design environment we do not mean only a physical one. For
us, a design environment provides proper design projects, design team
organization, and proper supervision of the projects. The design experience we
wish the students to go through during the course includes the problem solving
process, creativity, and team cooperation.
In order to be
able to experience design, the students must be given enough “design tools.” As
in a typical design course, there are two major activities in our course model:
lectures and student projects. The purpose of the lectures is not to teach the students
profound theories, but to help the students build their own “design tool box”
-- to let them know what tools are available to them to design, and to give
proper balance between theory and practice..
A variety of
subjects are taught in this one-year course, and each subject is taught for
only about two weeks. With the purpose of building a design tool box, the
lectures really emphasize breadth rather than depth, applications rather than
deep theories. The agenda on one of the subjects, “Computer Aided Design –
Finite Element Analysis,” is attached in the Appendix for reference. It is
expected that after the lectures, students possess a basic understanding of the
subject, and are able to further study the subject on their own when they need
to use the design tool, or to take an advanced course on the subject if they
find themselves interested in it.
It is always
interesting to identify the subjects that should be taught in a “design”
course. It is even more difficult to decide what subjects to teach when our
design course is not integrated into any specific curriculum, i.e., not related
to any specific knowledge domain. Currently 12 subjects are arranged in our
course model. These subjects were selected because we think they are the
fundamental tools that the students must have in order to be able to perform
Design Process (I) --
Computer Aided Design (I) --
Finite Element Analysis.
Mechanical Components (I) --
Design Process (II) --
Conceptual Design and Evaluation.
Computer Aided Design (II) --
Sensors and Electronic
Design Drawings and
Mechanical Components (II) --
Bearings, Bolts, Clutch, and Brakes.
10. Hydraulics and Pneumatics.
11. Mechanical Vibrations.
12. Computer Aided Design (III) -- Geometric Modeling.
This is a rather
drastic change in content from the more “traditional” mechanical design courses
in the universities in Taiwan.
There can be no standard textbook. Substantial handouts are prepared. The
subjects and the content of the subjects are reviewed and updated each summer
to reflect the latest changes in technologies and local industries.
Each subject in
itself can be a one-semester course. Some people may question whether it is a
good strategy to rush through a subject in two weeks, for a total of about six
hours of lectures. Students may have learned some of the subjects in their
previous courses, or they will take a course in one of the subjects. On the
other hand, some students will never have a chance to take a course on certain
subjects during their four years in college. After the course, the students may
not become experts in any of the subjects, but for many students on certain
subjects, these six hours may be the only time that some of the design tools
are displayed to them.
A quiz follows
each subject immediately. There is only one problem in the quiz, and it is
identical to one of the example problems discussed in the lectures, or one of
the exercise problems in the students' homework. The main purpose of the
quizzes is to make sure that the students still pay enough attention to the
theoretical aspect of the lectures. This type of quiz also relieves the TA's
working load of grading more than one hundred homework sets.
IV. Small process-oriented design projects
I also believe
that student design projects are an essential and necessary part of a
mechanical design course. Before installing student design projects into the
design courses, one important question to ask is, what does the professor want
to achieve with the design projects?
The answer to
this question may vary from course to course, from professor to professor. For
the course model and myself, there are several answers that are not what I want to achieve with the
student design projects. The purpose of the design projects is not to ask
students to invent something new that they can patent. The purpose of the
design projects is not to help the students sharpen their skills on the drawing
board or in the manufacturing workshop. The purpose of the design projects is
not even to build a real usable product.
The purpose of
the student design projects in my course model is to let the students
experience design, so that they can learn things that they do not learn in the
lectures, textbooks, and homework sets. The student projects are intended to be
a design problem to be solved, rather than a product to be built.
pedagogical goal, the design projects in this course model are small
process-oriented projects rather than large product-oriented projects. After
each subject is taught, students form teams of three or four to do small-scale
design projects. In a design project, students are expected to use the design
tool just introduced in lectures, to experience the design process and to
demonstrate their ideas and creativity.
In this format,
resource limitation does not seem to be an important problem. Inexpensive
materials such as straws, foam core, Lego’s, basic electronic components, small
motors and public domain software are given to the students for their projects.
Students are encouraged to use whatever is available to them to solve their
design problems, just as a real engineer would do, instead of relying on having
expensive, high precision equipment. In a project, students usually have to
design simple experiments using coins, rubber bands and chopsticks to measure
various data or system parameters required for their design. The projects are
also carefully designed so that most students themselves have the necessary
“equipment,” such as bicycles, motorcycles and personal computers, to finish
the projects. Many students finish most of their design projects in their
dormitory rooms. For example, since many students ride motorcycles to school,
the project for “Mechanical Vibration” is to model a motorcycle as a
mass-spring-damper system. Each design team has to measure or estimate the
parameters of the system, to calculate dynamic responses when riding the
motorcycle over a bump on campus road using simple spread sheet program.
Finally the students are asked to “redesign” the suspension of the motorcycle
for better ride quality.
problem we have to deal with is that the professor and TA do not have enough
time to coach each design team. Therefore an adapted “guided design procedure”
 is built into the design projects. Guided design is a structured way of
having students work through case studies. The guided design procedure advances
step by step through a specific problem-solving or design procedure . Wales and Nardi
 recommend the following ten steps:
Suggest possible solutions
Choose solution path
Analyze factors needed for
10. Make recommendations.
ad Nardi’s model, for each step, the students first complete the step then
receive and discuss the feedback, a printed sheet of paper which tells what the
professional engineers did in this case.
design procedure is adapted to our course model. Instead of case studies, a
large term project is divided into several small projects, each relating to a
subject of the lectures. For example, the term project this year is to design a
Lego race vehicle with various sensors to control its motor and a ping-pong
ball it is going to shoot into a goal at the end. This project is divided into
seven small projects related to the first seven subjects mentioned in the
previous section. Each project is part of a step-by-step system design
procedure which is either to develop the specifications, to generate various
design concepts for a subsystem of their final design, or to do certain
analysis or evaluation for their design. A race (rather than a design contest)
was held after the students finished the term project. “Coolness” was strongly
emphasized in the race to encourage student creativity.
In this adapted
guided design procedure, the professor and TA do not have to supervise each
team closely. However, the major feedback the student teams will get are the
comments the professor gives to the written reports of each team on each
projects. It is crucial that the professor focuses efforts on grading the
reports, giving useful comments to the students. In the standard guided design procedure,
it is the design process that is being taught, and not a particular answer.
Therefore it is important to stress that the feedback sheet does not represent
the solution but only shows what the professionals did. But in our student
projects, it is important to assess correct use of the design tools just
learned and therefore is included in the professor's feedback.
V. Implementing the design course model
model has been implemented in the Mechanical Engineering Department of Yuan Ze
University rather successfully for four years now. At the end of each year, a
questionnaire was distributed to survey the students acceptance of this model,
and identify modifications for the next year. The following statistics are from
the questionnaire of 1995~1996 academic year.
On the content
and projects of the course, about 70 percent of the students felt the content
was adequate, while the projects did seem to be overloaded. 85.6 percent of the
students spent five hours to a few days to finish each project. But 46.4
percent of the students liked the projects more than the quizzes, compared with
14.4 percent of the students who liked the quizzes more.
cooperation, only 50.5 percent of the students agreed that the project is the
effort of all team members. But students seemed to accept that in a team, they
have to deal with the fact that some of the members may not do the fair share
of the work. All team members get the same grade for the team project, but only
5.2 percent of the students felt the grading system is not fair. Finally, 70.1
percent of the students liked this course model, while 83.5 percent of the
students felt this model raises their interests in the course, and 85.6 percent
agreed that this model helps them learn the course materials more effectively.
feedback from the questionnaire, I also have some observations about
implementation of the model in the four years. Students' interests in the
course seemed to stay at a high level through the two semesters, since they
encounter a new subject almost every two weeks. There was not a lecture on “how
to be creative,” but in the design projects, students seemed to be rather
creative when relieved of the burden of manufacturing, using expensive, high
precision equipment and fancy commercial software. Students did not have to put
too much effort on the craftsmanship of manufacturing, as in a workshop course.
They did not have to devote all their attention to obtaining the most precise
data in the experiments, as in a physics lab or an experimental mechanics
course. They did not have to follow the instructions step by step to learn to
use software, as in a CAD/CAE course, leaving the students significant room for
effect of this kind of design project is that students tend to be less familiar
with the manufacturability issues of mechanical design. Therefore, design for
manufacturability is an important subject on the agenda of the senior design
project course, which I also teach. Students in this course have to build real
products. However, it is an optional course in our department and only 30
students can be admitted to the senior design course because of limited
VI. Discussions and conclusions
presents a course model, which attempts to incorporate student design projects
into junior-level mechanical design course in a large-class setting. This model
appears to be quite successful when implemented in the Department of Mechanical
Engineering, Yuan Ze University, Taiwan.
This paper does
not intend to discuss the culture issues of the attitude of Chinese professors
and students toward design. However, I wish to point out that the size of the
class is not the only difficulty of teaching design courses in Taiwan. In the
questionnaire to the professors teaching mechanical design courses, one
professor stated “In general, the professors do not have enough experience in
design practice and system design.” Most professors were trained by the more
“traditional” curriculum, which does not emphasize design. And despite almost
general agreement on the importance of design practice, it does not connect to
the professors’ other mission -- research.
universities should acknowledge the importance of design courses, and do an
adequate job of financing design courses and rewarding the participation of
I would like to
thank Mr. Wang, Shin-Gou, my graduate research assistant, for helping me with
the administrative work of this research. This research is partially sponsored
by the National Science Council, Taiwan, grant number
NSC84-2511-S-155-002 and NSC 86-2512-S-155-001-EE. This support is gratefully
Faste, R., B. Roth, and D.J.
Wilde, “Integration of Creativity into the Mechanical Engineering Curriculum,” ASME Resource Guide to Innovation in Design
Education, Cary A. Fisher, Ed., American
Society of Mechanical Engineering, New
Wilczynski, V., and S.M.
Douglas, “Integrating Design Across the Engineering Curriculum: A Report From
the Trenches,” Journal of Engineering
Education, vol.84, no.3, pp.235-240, 1995.
Moriarty, G., “Engineering
Design: Content and Context,” Journal of
Engineering Education, vol.83, no.4, pp.135-140, 1994.
Dally, J.W., G.M. Zhang, “A
Freshman Engineering Design Course,” Journal
of Engineering Education, vol.82, no.2, pp.83-91, 1993.
Catalano, G.D., “Engineering
Design: A Partnership Approach,” Journal
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Dym, C.L. “Teaching Design to
Freshmen: Style and Content,” Journal of
Engineering Education, vol.83, no.4, pp.303-310, 1994.
Mahendran, M. “Project-Based
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Brickell, J.L., D.B. Porter,
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Engineering and Technology, New York,
C.E., R.A. Stagers, and T.R. Long, Guided
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Appendix I: Questionnaire and statistics on the current
situation of mechanical design courses in universities in Taiwan
1. How many mechanical design classes are you teaching right now?
The sizes of your classes are
2.0 percent Below
percent 30 to
39, 45.1 percent 40 to 49,
23.5 percent 50 to
9.8 percent 60
to 69, 5.9 percent over 70.
percentage is based on number of sections.
2. Are there student design projects in the mechanical design course
you are teaching?
40.0 percent yes, 60.0
percentage is based on number of total sections.
3. In your opinion, what are the possible
difficulties if you arrange design practice projects in the mechanical design
course you are teaching?
66.7 percent the
size of the class is too big,
72.7 percent lack
of budget and proper environment,
24.2 percent lack
of proper textbook,
45.5 percent professors
do not have enough time,
15.2 percent students
do not have enough ability
_____ others. time is not
enough (12.1 percent), manufacturing difficulties (12.1 percent), students are
not willing to spend time on design practice (9.1 percent), teachers do not
have enough experience (3.0 percent), lack of proper projects(3.0 percent).
4. Do your department have other related courses for mechanical
35.0 percent yes,
and they are required courses,
35.0 percent yes,
and they are optional courses,
30.0 percent no.
percentage is based on number of different mechanical engineering departments.
5. The content of the mechanical design courses includes,
51.5 percent structural
12.1 percent mechtronic
15.2 percent hydraulics
and pneumatics, 30.3
12.1 percent geometric
15.2 percent design
36.4 percent design
drawings and documentation
_____ others. linkage
design, reliability engineering, fixture design .
questionnaire was originally in Chinese.
Appendix II: Agendas on “Computer Aided Design – Finite
1. General Introduction
Discuss why and where
mechanical designers need to use finite element analysis.
b. Introduce the process of finite element analysis.
2. Fundamental Theory
Use the 1-D spring element to
explain the basic concept of nodes, elements, and boundary conditions.
b. Explain the concept of the element stiffness matrix, and how the
system stiffness matrix is assembled.
Demonstrate how the system
equation is solved.
d. Discuss the conceptual extension to general structural analysis.
3. Computer Application
Discuss how to plan for building a finite element model using a
b. Use examples to describe the
possible mistakes when building a finite element model.
4. Design Application
Demonstrate the finite element analysis for a simple structure.
Discuss how to use the results from finite element analysis to redesign