Institute of Technology Sligo: Teaching engineering students how to solve problems using design thinking

Exploring how design thinking can help engineering students tackle future challenges

To give engineering students at the Institute of Technology Sligo, Ireland, an introduction to how design thinking could help them tackle future challenges, Assistant Lecturer Fionnuala Farrell decided to use Sprintbase.

Fionnuala

Based on my own industrial experience working as a process and product development engineer, I know that there are misconceptions that engineering is just about machinery, so I wanted to give students a broader understanding of what it can involve.

“I was looking for a way to teach design thinking remotely. I wanted students to work together online, to have time to think and be creative – as opposed to just setting them up in a classroom and saying ‘You’ve got three hours to build something’. I wanted them to have a deeper experience.”

Fionnuala Farrell,Assistant Lecturer, School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering, IT Sligo

Fionnuala started by doing the Sprintbase Remote Design Sprint Essentials course, to learn how to facilitate workshops and projects on the platform, and to acquire all the materials needed to do it.

Fionnuala

“I got to meet other academics as well who had already used the platform which was hugely valuable. It’s such a great community, it meant I didn’t feel alone.”

Fionnuala Farrell,Assistant Lecturer, School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering, IT Sligo

Fionnuala had to run a 12-week course with first year Engineering students, incorporating a communications module. Whilst using Sprintbase and following the design process, students automatically used their communications skills when seeking feedback and doing interviews, and when producing reports and presentations based on their design work. The use of breakout rooms also gave students experience conducting virtual meetings.

Fionnuala covered relevant theory in their workshops, but could then show them how they were collaborating, building interpersonal skills, deciphering information and making observations through their project work.

Students went through the three-step process on Sprintbase, covering Empathize, Ideate and Prototype. Fionnuala led three design challenges and gave students the option to work online on Sprintbase or entirely offline.

The first challenge was on How might we improve our remote learning experience? as this was a topic everybody could relate to.

Fionnuala

“I kept my sessions with students quite high level, so I didn’t influence their thinking, and then put up a brief on the platform and sent everyone into their breakout rooms. It was so good that there are built in demos on Sprintbase. We watched and discussed some together, and then it was great that people could access them throughout their sprints, and that they could access other built in guidance too – which aren’t big documents but really concise.

I set up a team leader for each group so I could check in with them when I dropped into breakout groups to see how everyone was doing.”

Fionnuala Farrell,Assistant Lecturer, School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering, IT Sligo

The purpose of the first sprint was to give everybody an understanding of how design thinking and Sprintbase works. It also showed where additional time was needed on each element ahead of the second challenge.

Fionnuala

“I would launch the challenge the first week, overcome some of the technical challenges, and then the second week we would move from the empathising stage into the idea phase. I would use a workshop to share information they needed with instructions about what each phase should be, and then leave them each time with homework to make it clear what needed to be done – for example to go and get some observations or later to build a prototype and get feedback.”

Fionnuala Farrell,Assistant Lecturer, School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering, IT Sligo

The second design challenge set was: How might we design a socially distanced sport for people to play together?*

Many students were really missing sport and being able to engage with people in that way, so this was a very relevant topic for students to explore.

Fionnuala

“I shared some criteria for things to consider when developing a socially distanced game. Doing something about sport helped people relax and they could use their own experience to inform their ideas too. Everybody was more comfortable with Sprintbase and the process this time as they’d used it before, and they were interested in the topic too.”

Fionnuala Farrell,Assistant Lecturer, School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering, IT Sligo

The final challenge was: How might we design an eco-friendly zero carbon kitchen to play our part in climate action?*

With some students at the university studying civil engineering, some interested in appliances, many coming from farming backgrounds, and lots of students passionate about addressing climate change, Fionnuala wanted to run a challenge focusing on the environment.

Students have been asked to come up with a plan for the kitchen, and then to take one aspect, and create prototypes. For example, this might be something that will help conserve water, or reduce waste. The project has required real research and consideration as to what would make a real difference.

Fionnuala shares her recommendations for making design challenges on Sprintbase a success:

  • Do the facilitator workshop (Remote Design Sprint Essentials): This was great to build my confidence in using it. The facilitator pack I got as part of the training made things really easy for me as all I had to do was come up with a design challenge that would be appropriate and interesting.
  • Use the ‘Before you participate’ guide: I recommend using this to take people through the platform before you get started so they know how to use it. I launched the sprint in our first session, but on reflection I could have held off and just let them have a play with the platform first.
  • Give context for your ‘How might we…?’: Help people understand what you mean by your challenge. Show examples of design sprints so people can see how they work before they get going.
  • Don’t have too many teams – I had eight but four or five is enough. I could walk around that number of people physically in a classroom setting but to give quality feedback online it’s better to have fewer teams.
  • Make use of the support available: Whatever you need, even last minute, the response back from Sprintbase was always so quick. I might send a question in the morning and I’d have the answer before my class began that day. I felt like I was handheld through the process, but not in an overpowering way – the help was just there if I wanted it.
  • Tailor your use of Sprintbase to your students’ experience: Some students will be less inclined than others to engage outside of set teaching time. Those with less experience might be nervous about contributing as everyone can see what’s been added on the platform.
  • Use the tools available to see how students are getting on: I liked being able to see who had logged on, review their work online, and then leave feedback or join a breakout group to provide support. I found it was really easy to see on Sprintbase which students had engaged, as you could see for example from the level of observations they uploaded. The downloadable PDF is great just for a record perspective, as you can pull the information any time.

*both design challenges were taken from John’s Spencer’s What is design thinking?

Interested in taking the Remote Design Sprint Essentials training Fionnuala mentions, to learn how to lead great workshops and projects on Sprintbase? Book your place on our next course.

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