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When first-year students in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering begin training as engineers, one of their first steps is MIME 101, an orientation course meant to introduce the concepts and skills needed to be successful, both in academics and in the engineering profession.
This past fall, when students walked into MIME 101, they entered a space wholly redesigned to engage, inspire, and ignite their creativity. Over the previous year, faculty in MIME worked to innovate these first contacts with students through hands-on creative activities, teamwork, and competition.
The redesign aligns with Oregon State University’s strategic goal of providing a transformational educational experience, says Nordica MacCarty, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. She was one of the principal designers of the course, along with David Nembhard, professor of industrial engineering, and Jennifer Parham-Mocello, assistant professor of computer science.
In the previous iteration of the course, students disassembled a consumer product and brainstormed ways they might improve upon it. “Unfortunately, they had little basis for improving upon a well-considered design,” Nembhard said.
The new course draws on hands-on experiential approaches to enhance students’ creativity and problem-solving skills and follows a design-build-test framework familiar to most professional engineering environments. Students work in teams to solve specific tasks using small robots. Teams then challenge their designs against those from other teams to complete a set of specific tasks such as navigating a maze, following a path, or transporting an object to a specific destination.
“There is considerable literature that shows competition improves learning outcomes,” Nembhard said. “While collaboration can outperform competition, involving aspects of both is valuable for engineering education.”
“Teamwork in high schools is often collaborative but rarely designed along functional lines,” MacCarty said. “For many students, this is their first formative experience in a cross-functional team, where members bring unique skills to the table.”
Practical knowledge of key engineering and science disciplines are still disseminated through traditional lectures, but these are focused on providing key tools to aid students as they design their system. These include mechanical engineering to describe the physical structure and capabilities of their robot, manufacturing engineering experienced by 3D printing novel components in their system, computer science approaches to program their robot to complete each task, and industrial engineering to optimize their system for performance and, ultimately, competitiveness.
Overall, MacCarty and Nembhard are happy with the end result. “While we will be further recalibrating these activities for the coming fall term, the goals to engage students in practical and hands-on experiential learning have been met in the redesign,” Nembhard said.
The new class has proven valuable not just for undergraduate students. The four graduate teaching assistants who assisted in the revamping also gained valuable firsthand experience in course development process.
“Creating an entirely new eight-lab curriculum from scratch using materials that were new to all of us was a challenge,” MacCarty said. “But we had a fantastic team of graduate students to help put it together and pull it off.”
The redesign was supported by a Scaled Learning Innovation Grant from the university as well as one from the OSU Women’s Giving Circle. Those funds allowed for the purchase of dozens of LEGO and Cozmo robots, tablet computers to control them, and eight 3D printers.