Using Engineering Design Prototypes to Improve the Communication Skills of Undergraduates

Sandeep Krishnakumar
Graduate Research Assistant
The Pennsylvania State University

Need: The objective of this grant is to rigorously investigate engineering students’ use of prototypes during engineering design communication, and leverage research findings to guide the creation of an automated pitch “coach.” Given the ill-defined, complex, and increasingly technical nature of design, it is critical that engineers can clearly articulate technical decisions and explain the design rationale behind complex systems. There is no lack of calls for engineers to communicate more clearly; however, most communication competencies at the undergraduate level focus on technical writing and giving research presentations, rather than on design pitches using prototypes. In this work, we are interested in the relationship between prototypes and communication competencies. It is well documented that professional engineers leverage prototypes as communication tools throughout the entirety of the design process. Prototyping is commonly taught at the undergraduate level, but not as a deliberate or intentional tool for communication with external or internal stakeholders. A growing body of research points to a significant gap between the design practice of professional engineers and undergraduates: The ability to leverage a design prototype to make a physical argument (concurrently with the verbal argument of a pitch) is critical to effective communication.

Guiding Questions: Two questions guide this work, 1) What rhetorical and communicative patterns emerge during undergraduate communication of design rationale as a function of prototypes and 2) What is the relationship between prototyping, communicative acts, and design narratives.

Outcomes: To date, we have identified several rhetorical, linguistic, and behavioral patterns present in communicative acts of undergraduate students. Specifically, we have identified that undergraduates may alter design rationale and design narratives due to failures in prototyping efforts. Additionally, we observed that prototypes may serve to enhance inter-team communication, acting as a boundary object across disciplines.

Broader Impacts: To date the results of this work have been published in three conference articles, and two journal articles. The data has been leveraged to affect curricular change at Penn State in first year and fourth year courses, affecting over 100 undergraduate students.


Catherine Berdanier, Penn State, University Park, PA; Christopher McComb, Carnegie Melon University, Pittsburgh, PA