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Researchers aim for capstone measurement tool

Better ways to prepare professional engineers to meet industry needs and measure their learning outcomes are the goals of ongoing research at Washington State University’s 100-year-old engineering college.

With $500,000 in support from the National Science Foundation through 2007, the project aims to improve student preparation for professional practice. Researchers include Denny Davis, principal investigator and professor of bioengineering, Michael Trevisan, assessment and evaluation professor, Steven Beyerlein, University of Idaho mechanical engineering professor, and others from Seattle University and Tuskegee University.

Industry requires more than technical learning from its new workforce. Teamwork, communication, critical thinking processes and self-growth also are sought from employees, and strength in these areas is something WSU wants to develop and assess in its students. In addition, improved teaching and learning and measurable learning outcomes are increasingly important for maintaining accreditation of engineering degree programs.

Engineering students’ senior capstone design course is the focus of the research being done by Davis and Trevisan. The course requires student teams to understand a problem posed by real clients, design a solution and communicate the results to a variety of audiences. Capstone design courses are a required part of any accredited baccalaureate engineering degree program in the U.S.

“Capstone design is so different from the other engineering courses,” said Davis, “it’s not a journey without frustration. Faculty familiar with traditional ways of teaching wonder what capstone design courses should accomplish and struggle with grading students’ progress and performance.

“Our assessment tools will help define educational targets and help faculty determine how well students have achieved learning desired by educators and employers.”

This phase of the NSF grant follows up on a project called Transferable Integrated Design Engineering Education (TIDEE), which has been under way since the early 1990s. A consortium of colleges in the Pacific Northwest has been defining desired outcomes of engineering education and structuring more interactive team learning and instructional materials to support design education. For more on the accomplishments from TIDEE efforts, see http://www.tidee.wsu.edu.

This research phase, funded through August 2007, will result in reliable, versatile assessment tools for capstone engineering design courses that can be readily used by a diversity of learners and cultures.

“Our goal is to create a flexible assessment and evaluation system that responds to local needs but meets workplace expectations for entry-level engineers across a broad spectrum of industries,” said Beyerlein, co-researcher at UI.

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