A Learning Community of University Freshman Design, Freshman Graphics, and High School Technology Students: Description, Projects, and Assessment

A Learning Community of University Freshman Design, Freshman Graphics, and High School Technology Students: Description, Projects, and Assessment

Rutar, Teodora


A learning community was developed to enhance the teamwork and communication components of a freshman design course. The learning community was comprised of students from a freshman design course, a freshman graphics course, and a high school technology course. Design teams were formed by combining three to four students from each of these courses. These teams were required to research, design, build, and test a specified product. The high school and university students communicated only using e-mails and Internet conferencing. This paper outlines how the learning community is implemented, describes three design projects, and presents the assessment methods. Assessment reveals that university students who participate in the learning community have a better understanding and confidence in the technical aspects of the design project than the students who do not participate in the learning community. It also reveals that high school participants display notable interest in the engineering design process.

Keywords: learning community, freshman design, high school


Collaborative learning and the use of a learning community has long been a goal of design curriculums. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has embraced these ideas with Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) programs that encourage formation of learning communities and inter-institutional collaboration, such as collaboration between universities and K-12 schools. Pedagogical studies show that students simply learn more if they are actively involved in the learning process [1,2] and if they interact with other students [3]. Collaboration and interaction within a learning community are especially important in engineering design. Engineering design requires synthesis-a process that is greatly enhanced when students collaborate with others who have ideas different from their own.

One common feature of traditional design courses is that they are taught with design teams comprised of students attending the same class and having similar educational backgrounds. Such courses do not teach students how to work on design teams where members may have significantly different technical backgrounds or may be located at different geographical locations. Collaboration with others from diverse backgrounds and locations is an important part of the learning process and common in “real-world” design practice. This is the problem specifically targeted in the learning community presented in this paper.

Development of the learning community was funded by an NSF-CCLI Adaptation and Implementation grant [4, 5]. It is based on an established freshman design curriculum described in [6] but adds a curriculum coordination component between the design class, a university graphics course and a high school technology course. The objective of this NSF project was to develop: (1) a pilot program that demonstrates how the learning community can be implemented; (2) several projects that can be used with this learning community; and (3) both direct and indirect assessment tools that can be used to assess technical, teamwork, and communication components of the learning community.

Described in this paper are the learning community, the design projects, and the direct and the indirect assessment tools developed for the learning community. The results of the surveys are presented in the light of actual student performance.


A. Learning Community Goals

The learning community provides students with design team experience where they must learn to work with members of diverse backgrounds and at different geographic locations. The specific curricular goals for the learning community are the following.

* Teach students to work in diverse groups and develop the communication skills necessary for meaningful technical interaction between colleagues with diverse educational backgrounds. This includes using technology to bridge geographical constraints in a design team.

* Provide students with a design experience that extends beyond the classroom and develop awareness that material taught in one course is related and applied in other courses.

* Develop students’ communication and research (educated and informed decision making) skills and bestow awareness early in their career that these skills are integral parts of the design process.

* Engage high school students in the design process, and encourage them to pursue a career in science or engineering.

These goals are achieved by engaging students in design teams comprised of members from three different courses, two freshman courses at Seattle University and one course at Central Kitsap High School. The team is assigned a design project that extends from initial literature review and research to final testing, documenting, and reporting. The team members from each course contribute to the product design with different skill sets. The student roles are predetermined and do not overlap between classes, mimicking the real world product development setting. One key to the success of the learning community is that the three courses have overlapping themes but different focuses. This makes it possible to identify common aspects of the courses for the curriculum coordination. Another key is that the student population of the three courses is different. Thus, one of the goals of the learning community, to have students interact with those outside of the course, is accomplished. A final key is that sixty miles separate the high school and the university. This means face-to-face student contact is restricted. This requires students to rely on e-mail, Internet conferencing, and teleconferencing as means of communication. A description of the courses participating in the learning community follows.

B. Participating Courses

1) MEGR181 Innovative Design: MEGR181 is a two quarter-credit freshman engineering design course at Seattle University. The course is the first design class in the curriculum. It provides an introduction to engineering and focuses on the basics of the design process. In addition to few smaller projects, the course includes a major team design project, which requires students to apply key steps in the design process. Students arc required to write memorandums and reports, and give presentations. MEGR181 is required of all mechanical and electrical engineering students at Seattle University.

2) MEGR105 Engineering Graphics: MEGR105 is a three quarter-credit freshman graphics course at Seattle University. The course covers the fundamentals of interpreting and producing engineering drawings, the use of solid modeling as a design tool, and the creation of technical illustrations for reports and presentations. The course is designed to give students a working knowledge of dimensioning, tolerancing, orthographic projections, and section views. MEGR105 is required of all mechanical and civil engineering students at Seattle University.

3) CKHS091 CAD: CKHS091 is a technology course taught at Central Kitsap High School. The course is part of a two-year sequence of Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) courses available at the high school. This course is taken in the second year of the program. The course focuses on drafting practices and industrial standards. Students also learn to create sculpted three-dimensional models, which are printed on the school’s stereo-lithography machine (3-D printer).

C. Learning Community Implementation

Learning community design teams consist of students from all three courses. The teams are comprised of four students from the university freshman design course, three students from a high school technology course, and three students in the university freshman graphics course. At least one of the university graphic students on a team also attends the freshman design course. The teams are all given the same design project. These design projects vary from term to term, but all follow the same process. The project process is shown in Figure 1 and discussed in detail below. The project details are provided in section III of this paper.

The design projects are initially presented to the university design freshmen. They are then required to perform initial research to learn new engineering concepts pertinent to the project. During this research period, the university and high school student teams are introduced at a teleconferencing meeting and an overview of the project is presented to the high school students. Following the brainstorming period, the university students produce a conceptual design and supporting sketches. This design is presented to their high school team members using e-mail. This is the first real technical discourse the team has and is followed by a series of e-mails and Internet videoconferences, using NetMeeting software, in which students discuss the design and review the CAD drawings produced by the high school. These meetings are to ensure that the physical parts which will be built by the high school match exactly the university students’ expectations. Once the prototype design has been finalized, the high school creates a 3-D model of the part using their stereo-lithography machine (3-D printer). The part is then shipped to the university where the initial tests are performed. E-mails and Internet conferences are further used to discuss results from prototype testing and to decide what design changes are required. Once the design is finalized, the high school produces a final drawing package. This package is reviewed by the freshman graphics student teams for technical quality. The communication between high school and graphics students is again done via e-mail. The graphics students do not formally communicate with the freshman design students, instead the information is exchanged by students who attend both classes and are assigned to matching teams. Once the drawing package is approved, the high school fabricates the final part using the 3-D printer. During the final week of the term, students from all three classes meet at Seattle University for final presentations and testing. The teams then “show off their designs and participate in the design competition.


Student teams in the learning community have participated in three different design projects. A wind turbine was designed in two offerings of the learning community, a door handle in one and a fly-wheel in another. The projects developed to support the learning community needed to be applicable to a freshman design course, but complex enough that they require meaningful technical communication within the teams. Another requirement was that the prototypes must be fabricated at the high school using their 3-D printer. Following is the description of the projects that were developed for the learning community.

A. Wind Turbine Project

In this project, students designed a wind turbine rotor for the production of electrical power. The students were to optimize the blade geometry and rotor inertia to maximize the power output of the turbine. In the competition, the winning turbine is the one that produces the maximum power at a specified wind velocity. As part of their design, students were to consider the number, shape, and angle of the blades, hub structure, and assembly of the rotor with the shaft. The project learning objectives, listed below, were formulated based on recommendations given in [7]. At the end of the project students were to be able to:

1. explain how the wind turbine works;

2. explain pros and cons of utilization of wind turbines for power;

3. explain the lift force on an airfoil;

4. explain how the generator works;

5. explain Faraday’s Law;

6. use the library to find at least one peer-reviewed archival reference;

7. calculate power for the generator knowing voltage and resistance;

8. use a breadboard to set up a network of resistors in series or in parallel; and

9. measure voltage and current.

An example turbine rotor is shown in Figure 2. The turbine rotor is joined to a metal rod, coupled with a small generator, and placed in a wind tunnel (see Figure 3). Power output by the turbine is determined by measuring the voltage from the loaded generator at specified wind speeds.

B. Door Handle Project

In this project, students were to design a handle with a maximum torque-to-weight ratio. The students were to select the length, thickness and shape of the handle, in order to optimize the torque-to-weight ratio of their handle. In the competition, the handle with the highest torque-to-weight ratio wins. The material, dimensional, and manufacturing constraints are set by the manufacturing and testing equipment. At the end of the project students were to be able to:

1. explain torque;

2. describe methods for measuring torque;

3. explain tensile and shear strength;

4. determine approximately the type of stresses in the door handle;

5. describe a cantilever beam, and the stress distribution in the beam;

6. describe how stress concentration can cause a part to break, and apply that to the design;

7. use the library to find at least one peer-reviewed archival reference; and

8. calculate torque-to-weight ratio based on measured force, distance, and mass of the door handle.

An example of an original conceptual sketch generated by the university students is shown in Figure 4. The testing was performed on an axial (tensile) loading machine shown in Figure 5.

C. Flywheel Design

In this project, students were to design a flywheel for energy storage. The students were to select the size, the shape, and the flywheel assembly to optimize the energy storage capability (energy density) of the flywheel. In the competition, the flywheel that stores the most energy per unit weight is the winner. The material, dimensional and manufacturing design constraints were set by the manufacturing and testing equipment. At the end of the project each student were to be able to:

1. list two pros and two cons of using flywheels as energy storage devices;

2. explain torque;

3. explain angular velocity;

4. explain kinetic energy of a rotational object, and it’s relation to power;

5. list which parameters, such as mass or velocity, and by what relation, kinetic energy depends on, and describe which design considerations would maximize kinetic energy;

6. explain why the centrifugal force causes tension in the flywheel and which design consideration can address that effect;

7. describe how stress concentration can cause a part to break, and apply that to the design;

8. use the library to find at least one peer-reviewed archival reference; and

9. calculate energy density based on measured voltage, current, time and mass.

During testing, the flywheel is attached to a metal rod, which is coupled to an electric motor/generator and a load. The motor spins the flywheel until a specified RPM is reached. Power is then disconnected from the motor, and the motor, now acting as a generator, is connected to a load. Output from the generator is plotted versus time. A picture of the experimental test setup is shown in Figure 6.


Project grading methods used in the learning community are designed to help differentiate individual student performance and contribution from the overall team performance. Teamwork includes in-class and out-of-class effort of team members, making it difficult for an instructor to evaluate each team-member’s performance. Traditionally, surveys are used to determine an individual team member’s contribution. Notable examples are given in [8, 9]. In this learning community, individual student grade is determined by combining the scores from individual and team assignments and the results of a peer evaluation survey. These grading components are described below. For additional details on teamwork assessment, refer to [10, 11].

1) Research Memorandum: University freshman design students must submit a memorandum containing results of their individual research. The memo should include a description, rationale and critique of one design alternative. This assignment is submitted early in the design project and is used to assess how well each individual student understands major design features. A grading rubric is given in Table 1.

2) Project Report: University freshman design student teams must submit a project report that contains project descriptions, design alternatives, description and rationale of the final design, final design’s testing performance and evaluation, and design recommendations.

3) Presentation: The university and high school team members must present their work at the end of the design project. The university students’ presentation parallels their written project report. The high school students present their CAD model and discuss the 3-D printing process. Both presentations must include an evaluation of the effectiveness of communication with their teammates at the other institution.

4) E-mails: The university students regularly used e-mail to communicate with their team members. In certain cases, the use of e-mail is required. For example, students must use e-mail to introduce the designs to the high school teammates. These e-mails must: (1) state the purpose of the e-mail; (2) rationalize main design features in terms of project requirements, constraints, timelines, and planned testing; (3) describe the design with sufficient information to picture and replicate the design; and (4) explain the reasoning behind major design features. The e-mails are scored for a letter grade using a rubric that evaluates whether the abovementioned categories are completed, somewhat completed or not completed at all.

5) Internet Conferencing Communication Notes: The university and high school students on the same team communicate using NetMeeting software several times per term. Following these meetings, university students are required to submit notes in which they state the purpose of the meeting, describe the meeting discussion, and list the NetMeeting software components which were utilized, i.e., voice, chat, video, whiteboard, or file sharing. The notes are scored for a letter grade using a rubric that evaluates whether the abovementioned categories are completed, somewhat completed or not completed at all.

6) Team Peer Evaluation: Team peer evaluation questionnaire was developed based on BESTEAMS Peer Evaluation Form presented in [12]. In this questionnaire, each team member is asked to rate themselves and the other team members in fourteen categories, relating to the member’s performance on the team. The BESTEAMS Peer Evaluation Form was modified by adding the following questions: “Does the team member contribute to:” 1) everyday hands-on work and drawings; 2) writing of the project report; 3) management of the design project; and 4) engineering and technical components of the project.

7). Technical Drawings: High school students are held accountable for producing accurate technical drawings for their parts. Their work is checked through the following: (1) the high school teacher checks their work prior to producing 3-D prints; (2) the university freshman drafting students check drawings for technical completeness and accuracy; and (3) university freshman design students check the printed parts. In addition, students are given the opportunity with the university to take an exam and receive university credit for CAD drawing. High school students use the same CAD software as the university freshman.

8) Team Milestones: Teams are evaluated as to whether they completed design and communication milestones by the deadlines specified by the instructor. Those milestones include deadlines for: prototypes, e-mails, research memo, report, final presentation, drawing reviews, printed prototypes, and others.


In addition to evaluating student’s individual performance in the learning community, various surveys are used to help evaluate the success of the learning community. The survey results are then combined with key graded results described in the previous section. These results are summarized in the following paragraphs. The results are grouped by survey. All results are reported using statistical parametric tests and were verified using appropriate non-parametric tests. The results presented here are from freshman design and high school students only. Freshman graphics students are not included in the assessments since they have limited participation in the learning community.

A. Short-Term Surveys

Short-term surveys are used to improve the course outline, syllabus, the project complexity or relevance, and the teaching style, homework, or tests. The survey is given three times during the term and includes questions which pertain to teamwork, technical writing in engineering practice, and the students’ perception of their understanding of technical aspects of the project. A complete description of short-term surveys is given in [13].

Key results from the short-term surveys are shown in Table 2. These results are pooled from all offerings of the learning community and are limited only to results that proved to be statistically significant. As can be seen, students maintained high appreciation of technical writing, technical drawing, and teamwork in engineering practice throughout the term. The results also show that university freshman design students believe that their technical writing skills improved throughout the quarter, showing a minimum 10 percent improvement in their own assessment of their skills. This is important, since positive perception is indicative of students’ enthusiasm for learning. The students’ perception proved to be true and is supported by their homework grades, shown in Figure 7. These grades show marked improvement in their technical writing skills. Students show improvement in their ability to correctly and accurately communicate (grammar and syntax score) and in their ability to use figures (figures score). The grade distribution also narrows as the quarter progresses, indicating that all students are showing improvement. The scores for “use and style” in referencing show a decrease. This could be due to the fact that students are taught about referencing at the beginning of the quarter, but not required to use it regularly throughout the quarter, whereas use of figures and grammar is required throughout the term. Overall, the results confirm that students’ technical communication skills improve and that they understand the importance of communication in teamwork, therefore satisfying two of the goals of the learning community-to improve the students’ technical communication skills and develop awareness of importance of communication.

The short-term survey was also given to students who were enrolled in a separate section of the freshman design course. This section was taught during the same term, by the same professor, and covered the same material. However, these students did not participate in the learning community. Their design teams were made up of students from the class itself. It should be noted that no attempt was made to target students for the learning community. Students were free to register for either section and were unaware of which section would participate in the learning community. The decision as to which section would participate in the learning community was made solely to match the high school class meeting time.

Key results comparing the two sections are shown in Table 3. The results show that students who participated in the learning community felt that they had a better understanding of the design problem and the design process. This is validated by the same student’s final report scores, also shown in Table 3. Students who participated in the learning community scored higher on the final report. This is interesting because the non-learning community students scored slightly higher on non-project related assignments and had slightly higher average GPAs at the end of the quarter just as they did three years later. Therefore, the better performance on the final report of those in the learning community can be attributed to the fact these students were more invested in the project. They were required to explain the project and design process to their high school counterparts. The same students also showed higher enthusiasm for the course because of the stimulating environment of the learning community. All of these factors contributed to the success of the learning community and achieving the goals of helping students to learn how to do technical research early in their academic career and then be able to apply this knowledge to a practical problem.

B. Team Communication and Methods Effectiveness Survey

Team communication surveys are used to determine which types of communication methods each team used, such as e-mails with scanned sketches, NetMeeting with chat and whiteboard, etc., and to gage their perception about the effectiveness of each method when communicating specific technical concepts amongst themselves. The survey is important in our case because it provides information on how students valued the means of non-interpersonal communication with their teammates at another institution. Finally, the university students are asked to rate how well the physical prototype supplied by the high school matches the technical description provided by the university students. This survey is given twice during the term.

Results from this survey are shown in Table 4. These results indicate that students learn, as the term progressed, to utilize given software methods for meaningful technical discussions. This is precisely one of the goals of the learning community. The results specifically show that students prefer to communicate using e-mail. Also, the change in students’ perception for usefulness of Internet conferencing in the beginning and in the end of quarter is larger than the change in their perception of the usefulness of e-mail. There are two possible reasons for the above findings. First, students were familiar with e-mail, but were not familiar with NetMeeting before the beginning of the project. Since NetMeeting software is more complex to use than e-mail, allowing multiple ways to communicate, such as voice, video, chat, whiteboard, file transfer, it is likely that students needed extra time to become proficient with the new software. second, several technical problems were experienced when using NetMeeting, and may have created resentment for using the software. The difficulties were associated with both university’s and high school’s firewalls and with individual computer settings.

The communication survey also reveals that university students were in general successful in communicating their ideas to the high school students. University freshman design students reported that nine out of ten prototypes and eight out of ten of the final design pieces they received met their expectations. In all three cases in which designs failed to meet expectations the reasons are attributed to failure of communication. For example, two teams changed their final design in the last week of the project. In the short time that was left, the design students failed to clearly explain to the high school counterparts the importance of the desired changes, which, in turn, resulted in unsatisfactory parts. In these cases, there was not enough time for the team to reach a unanimous decision regarding proposed design changes. While these students were disappointed, they also indicated to the professor the valuable lesson they learned about technical communication.

C. Student Interviews

In addition to surveys, student interviews were used to evaluate the success of the learning community. In some cases, interviews were done informally by the instructors. In these cases, the instructor talked to individual students during a class session about specific areas of interest. In other cases the interviews were formal. Before the formal interviews, students were given a list of topics to consider regarding the effectiveness of the learning community. During the interview they discussed these topics with a faculty member who was not their instructor. Formal interviews were videotaped.

Results from the interviews are divided into three categories: teamwork, communication, and technical aspects. These are summarized in Table 5. Overall the students’ comments were very positive. One older transfer student explained it succinctly, saying: “Just think where I could have been if I would have had this experience as a high school student”.


While the learning community was successful, there are several areas that will be improved in future offerings. These recommendations, divided into teamwork, communication, and technical aspects, are listed below.


a) The teamwork contribution of each individual team member is currently evaluated only via student peer evaluations, a research memo, and technical drawings. Additional measures need to be added to account for smaller tasks. A suggested method includes developing a rubric for grading these tasks, coupled with faculty observation of each team member.

b) Students need guided assistance to help them identify individual team-member skills useful to the project. Recognizing ways in which each team member can uniquely contribute to the project will also encourage all team members to equally participate in the project. In order to achieve this, faculty-guided classroom team discussions are planned.


c) Developing a method for communication between instructors would help the project execution effectiveness.

d) Coordinate course-offering times to allow for sufficient time for Internet conferencing.

e) Students should be provided with brief training in the features of the NetMeeting software and allowed practice time prior to actual using of the software. This is due to the fact that students favored to communicate via e-mail over Internet conferencing, which is likely a consequence of technical problems they encountered using NetMeeting, and the fact that they are more familiar with the e-mail as communication medium.

f) Course assignments should be upgraded to give more practice referencing.

Technical Aspects

g) Teams need to be encouraged to clearly enumerate project goals early in the project. Ensuring that each student clearly understands the project goals will help keep teams focused on what is important in the project during the process of design. In order to elicit project goal understanding for each student, classroom techniques such as inclass discussions, written assignments, and small tests are suggested.

h) Engineering students should be encouraged to communicate the “big picture” aspects of their projects to high school students. Explaining how the design requirements and constraints, testing procedure and apparatus, timelines and physical phenomena relate to the design features helps all members of the team constructively brainstorm and develop sense of ownership of the design. In order to achieve this, faculty-guided classroom team discussions are suggested.

i) Improve coordination between design and drafting students at the university level so that technical drawing methods and visualization can be used in the brainstorming and sketching phase of the design project.


The learning community presented was implemented four times over two years. It involved over 80 university and 40 high school students. The learning community was very successful and well received by university and high school students alike. The collaboration between the university and high school continues and is being used as a model for new learning communities.

The learning community provided a setting for students to learn through experience how to design a part, participate in a design team, communicate with team members who have a different technical background, and communicate technical concepts across a distance using e-mail and NetMeeting software. The learning community also provided some unique benefits what could not be realized through traditional in-class design projects.

a) University and high school students successfully designed products by communicating only using e-mail and Internet conferencing.

b) The university students who participated in the learning community gained confidence in using e-mail and Internet conferencing for understanding of drawings and specifications, for technical discussions about the designs, manufacturing, and testing, and for decision making.

c) The university students who participated in the learning community gained a better understanding and confidence in the technical contents of the design project over students who did not.

d) High school students were exposed to the engineering design process and developed interest in the hard science behind the designs. Some of these students decided to pursue a career in engineering.

e) High school students obtained college credit for participating in the learning community.


James Adamson, Central Kitsap High School teacher, made this learning community possible with his enthusiasm for technical innovation and education of students.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0126776.


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Mechan teal Engineering Department

Seattle University


Mechanical Engineering Department

Seattle University


Teodora Rutar is an assistant professor at Seattle University, Department of Mechanical Engineering. She received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from University of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington. She joined Seattle University in 2000. She pursues research in pollutant formation in combustion.

Address: Seattle University, Mechanical Engineering Department, 900 Broadway, Seattle, WA, 98122; e-mail: teodora@ seattleu.edu

Greg Mason is an associate professor at Seattle University, Department of Mechanical Engineering. He received a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Gonzaga University, an M.S. in computer integrated manufacturing from Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington. He is a Professional Engineer in the State of W ashington. He joined Seattle University in 1993 and has developed the Manufacturing Engineering program.

Address: Seattle University, Mechanical Engineering Department, 900 Broadway, Seattle, WA, 98122; e-mail: mason@seattleu. edu.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Apr 2005

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