Unpacking an Engineering Practicum: Building Engineers, One Participant Structure at a Time

WCER Working Paper No. 2010-5

Gina Navoa Svarovsky

April 2010, 23 pp.

ABSTRACT: In response to industry’s demands for better prepared engineering graduates, capstone design courses have been included in undergraduate engineering programs for over 3 decades. These practicum experiences, typically encountered during the final year or semester of the course sequence, provide valuable “real world” experiences for students by allowing them to engage in the engineering design process within an authentic context. While the success of these courses has been extensively studied, much less attention has been paid to investigating how specific components of the practicum affect the learning processes of the undergraduates. This paper presents an ethnographic study of an engineering practicum. The study followed a student design team consisting of four undergraduates as they worked with an actual client to design a biomedical device. The paper specifically examines how two activities—meeting regularly with a design advisor to discuss progress and maintaining a design notebook throughout the project—contributed to the students’ development of engineering skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking. Understanding how these activities facilitate student learning can influence the design of future capstone experiences as well as other, more general engineering learning contexts.

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keywords: Engineering; Design; Reflection; Practicum