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Researchers probe the effects of using CAD simulation on teaching design thinking to college students

In a recent study, a team of researchers from Purdue University, USA, Northrop Grumman, USA, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Mumbai, India, and University of Florida, USA have studied the effect of using computer-aided design (CAD) simulations on teaching engineering design thinking to students.

Engineering design thinking is the strategies used to design solutions to an engineering problem. It often involves creative approaches to a problem to design an effective and economically viable solution. Unlike analytical thinking that is based in numbers and statistics, design thinking involves creative and practical resolutions to problems. The phrase “thinking outside the box” was coined to describe the process of design thinking. However, training students to think creatively about a problem can be a challenging task. According to the authors of the study “engineering design thinking is hard to teach and still harder to learn by novices, primarily due to the undetermined nature of engineering problems that often results in multiple solutions”.

The arrival of the digital age has brought in tools like CAD that have immensely aided engineers during the process of design thinking. With smartphones becoming commonplace, and the processing power of the computers continuing to rise, tools like CAD could soon become accessible to college students too. The researchers wanted to study the effects of using a tool like CAD simulations on learning design thinking.

For their study, the researchers used CAD simulation software to teach freshman students. The students interacted with the CAD simulation software in the context of a collaborative assignment, while the researchers characterized the different levels of design thinking displayed by the students.

The researchers have identified a framework with four different levels engineering design thinking -- beginning designer, adept beginning designer, informed designer, adept informed designer. The study further characteristics associated with each of the four levels. “The four levels pertain to four engineering strategies that the students pursued-- understanding the design challenge, building knowledge, weighing options and making tradeoffs, and reflecting on the process” claim the researchers. The study also revealed significant improvements in two categories-- understanding the design challenge, building knowledge, among students who interacted with the CAD software.

The study highlights the importance of using CAD software in the classrooms. It could also help us design better classrooms to teach the process of design thinking, equipped with the right tools and the right learning environment.