Assessment of an Undergraduate Engineering Design Capstone Course

Saturday, February 13, 2016
Tanya Das, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA
The capstone design course is an integral part of most engineering curricula at the university level. However, due to the open-ended and creative nature of engineering design, such capstone courses have proved very difficult to evaluate. Additionally, most of the existing literature on evaluation of capstone courses focuses on technical writing or oral presentation skills, and rigorous studies on evaluating the engineering design process itself have been mostly neglected. The goals of this study are to implement and evaluate measures to improve engineering design education in an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering (ME) program and to assess achievement of ME departmental program learning outcomes as a result of student participation in the capstone course. To achieve these goals, we utilize a triangulation approach, combining data from 1) student surveys and self-assessments, 2) weekly rubrics to regularly assess student progress on the design process, and 3) focus group interviews with students. Each assessment method has been carefully designed utilizing information from the existing literature on survey and rubric design. Based on these data, we identify shortcomings of the capstone course, devise and implement specific improvements to address these shortcomings, and study the effects of these improvements over the course of one academic quarter. Our study identifies key areas for improvement in the capstone course; a few examples are provided here. Many students (46%) reported confusion on the clarity of grading on assignments and the desire for more feedback, and we responded by implementing clearer, more objective grading rubrics, which strongly emphasize feedback in targeted areas, making the grading more transparent to students. The rubrics were also used on a weekly basis, to provide students with more regular feedback. Additionally, survey results revealed that 27% of students wanted less structure in the class and more opportunity for creativity, specifically with regards to writing formal reports. As a result, we implemented informal Living Notebooks to allow students to track real-time progress on their design project, without the need for writing time-consuming formal reports. Additionally, over one in three students expressed difficulties in working on teams, specifically in inequalities of the division of labor and issues with communicating with team members. As such, we implemented a mid-quarter peer review to allow students to give each other feedback on performance and give students time to implement changes in their team dynamics for improved performance during the latter half of the course. This study provides a rigorous way to assess the open-ended capstone design course, and reports on the effectiveness of improvements to capstone courses piloted in this study.