Cooperative Learning Instructional Activities in a Capstone Design Course

By Pimmel, Russ | Journal of Engineering Education, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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Cooperative Learning Instructional Activities in a Capstone Design Course

Pimmel, Russ, Journal of Engineering Education


In developing our capstone design course, we decided to include instruction in design methodology, project management, engineering communications, and professional ethics, along with a comprehensive design project. As this course evolved over a number ofyears, we found that active and cooperative learning was critical for effective instruction in these topics and we developed a series of instructional activities using this methodology. These activities consisted of short presentations (mini-lectures) with interspersed team exercises. We describe our course, these instructional activities, and some evaluation data showing that our students found them effective and important. Our experiences convinced us that the cooperative learning approach both enhanced our students' understanding of these topics and encouraged them to incorporate the associated skills into their working skill set. Including team exercises that dealt with various steps in the design process provided a "jump-start" on these unfamiliar activities in a structured, short duration exercise environment in class. Listening to presentations by other teams and reviewing and discussing another team's results as a part of the team exercises provided an opportunity to see and think about different formulations of the problem they just considered.


In the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Alabama, we, like virtually all other engineering programs, require a capstone course involving a major design project. In this course we require teams (typically three or four students) to specify, design, implement in some fashion, and validate a design project. To help our students through the design process, we provide instruction in design methodology, project management, and engineering communication. To help complete their professional development, we also include a section on engineering ethics. In other words, we teach the "implicit curriculum" as Waltz and Barrett' called the things we expect our students to learn but never teach in any course.

Initially, when we developed the course, we created a lecture or two on each of the "implicit curriculum" topics that we presented using a standard lecture format and classroom setting. We quickly realized that these lectures were ineffective because our students did not remain attentive for the full fifty-minute lecture and, perhaps more importantly, because they did not internalize the associated skills, that is make them a part of their personal skill set. To deal with these two shortcomings, we began moving toward more student involvement in the classroom. This active/cooperative learning approach eventually evolved into a series of instructional activities consisting of short presentations (mini-lectures) interspersed with team exercises forcing the students to interpret or apply the ideas as we talked about them. In this paper, we describe our course design, the use of cooperative learning techniques, and the series of instructional activities making up this course. Also, we present some evaluation data and the conclusions that we have drawn from our experiences.


When we established our capstone course, we decided that we wanted a one-semester course with a major design experience and some instruction in design methodology and professional skills-- topics included in several other capstone courses.2-4 We wanted many faculty members involved and we wanted the students working on design problems that interested them and the faculty member supervising the work We wanted the design projects to build on advanced knowledge, such as that taught in a senior-level elective course. Finally, we wanted to offer the students several options so that they could complete their design experience in their area of specialization.

To meet our goals, we decided to offer several sections of the course every semester with each section requiring a different one of the senior-level lecture-lab-course combinations taught in the previous semester as prerequisites.

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