IDEA-PEN: Evaluating the Efficacy of a Computer-Aided Exploration Interface in Augmenting Engineering Design Learning

Project No.
PI Name
Karthik Ramani
Purdue University


Abstract 1

IDEA-PEN: Evaluating the Efficacy of a Computer-Aided Exploration Interface in Augmenting Engineering Design Learning

Presentation Type
Karthik Ramani, Donald W. Feddersen Professor of Mechanical Engineering Monica Cardella, Associate Professor, School of Engineering Education Anirudh Sriram, Graduate Student, School of Mechanical Engineering Deanna Tolbert, Graduate Student, School of Engineering Education Devarajan Ramanujan, Graduate Student, School of Mechanical Engineering


In helping undergraduate students learn engineering design, it is very important that they explore complex scenarios that are realistic, and fall outside the domain of standard and over-simplified textbook problems that typically have an answer. A majority of the current educational methods and computer-based tools do not bridge the gap between the textbook problems and the real world and also lack affordances for design exploration. Although computational methods such as Finite Element Analysis have this potential, they are hard to use requiring the users to spend a significant effort in learning to use them. Also, several instructors have identified significant knowledge gaps in concepts related to structural design and strength of materials when the students reach their senior year. To this end, we have developed a problem-based interface to allow for rapid design exploration within engineering design curricula using an easy-to-use, simplified and constrained version of finite elements for stress analysis and exploration. Our interface makes it possible for users to rapidly explore various design options by incorporating a Finite Element Analysis (FEA) backend for design exploration. Our approach uses constrained design problems for weight minimization that incorporates elements of structural topology optimization but does not automate it. Instead we provide the user the control on decision making for changing the shape through material removal. Using this interface, we explore the decision making of users, and their methodology in the course of the activities that provide a context of control, challenge and reflection. Using questionnaires, video and verbal protocol analysis we integrate assessment in ways that are important and interesting for learning. Our interface demonstrates that the ability of computational tools that are transformed for learning purposes can scaffold and augment learning processes in new ways.


The primary objective of this project is to lay the foundations of a design-analysis platform that introduces new ways for the students and teacher to interact, explore, and learn design and analysis in the classroom and laboratories. The project addresses fundamental issues pertaining to natural interfaces, behavioral modeling, secure knowledge sharing, and developing a proof-of-concept architecture and platform that embodies the findings. The primary objective is being achieved through the following specific aims:
Aim 1: Adapt and enhance a completed research prototype of a natural and an easy-to-use tool for mechanical engineering education incorporating finite element analysis and kinematics.
Aim 2: Introduce the tool among mechanical engineering undergraduate students and evaluate its impacts.
Aim 3: Enhance engineering education by introducing the new tool in other areas of the ME undergraduate curriculum and disseminate the tool to the larger academic community through web platforms.
The duration of the project is 2 years. This annual report is on the outcomes of the second year of the project.

In light of Aim 1, we introduced a novel web-based exploration interface for the rapid exploration of design problems. Our goal was to augment learning of target concepts in mechanical engineering design through the exploration of constrained design problems. We achieved this goal by conducting two phases of user studies in which undergraduate students used our exploration interface to solve design tasks (Aim 2).


As per our primary objective in Aim 1, our exploration interface was particularly instrumental towards providing new affordances for exploring a design space in a 2D problem solving environment. Our interface and FEA backend allowed for a rapid exploration of a constrained design space to solve a problem in mechanics of materials. Our interface aimed to reduce the barrier to entry to exploration using commercial FEA tools.
The second specific objective was to introduce this new interface among undergraduate students and study the impact on their conceptual understanding and learning. To achieve this objective, we conducted two phases of user studies with students from the School of Mechanical Engineering. In the study, students solved simple mechanical design problems through using our interface to explore various designs. Using verbal and video protocol analysis, we were able to draw conclusions about the efficacy of the interface.
The third specific objective during the reporting period was to enhance engineering education by introducing the new tool in other areas of the ME undergraduate curriculum and to disseminate the tool to the larger academic community through web platforms. We have made progress towards this objective by developing the interface to run on a Web browser and by developing robust underlying algorithms to ensure that the interface can be used across different domains In Mechanical Engineering. Finite Element Analysis (FEA) is widely used in industry for multiphysics problems and can therefore, be extended across a variety of problem domains very easily.


Our exploration interface serves as a powerful proof-of-concept for using FEA as a medium for exploration in a 2D design problem environment. The intuitive affordances for shape creation and manipulation enabled users to rapidly explore the design space without learning to use a software system. The main advantage that our research provided was the insights into the users' design processes and subsequent learning that followed as a result of using our interface. Our approach can serve as a starting point for designing similar exploration-based interfaces and frameworks with more powerful capabilities and with more options for exploration. The fundamental understanding of users' processes and methods for design exploration creates new pathways for further research exploring creative design contexts in a real-world scenario. This project opens up the ability for faculty to develop and publish explorative problems that use high performance computation, while on the cloud. This can provide access to the entire problem exploration environment on the web, opening up a new way to widely disseminate the tool and process itself.

Broader Impacts

The impact of the foundational research on exploratory infrastructures for design and analysis is that it would bridge a critical gap between 'engineering design' and 'design engineering' at a very early stage. Graduated students will have a stronger understanding of engineering concepts and with it, the capability to design better and innovative products. The products of this research would improve engineering learning by providing students with a natural and intuitive interface to learn and explore a wide variety of engineering concepts across the curriculum through quick simulation and visualization.

Innovation is recognized as a key competitive advantage in our economy. The design concepts, methods, and tools being developed in this project to support design exploration and Improvement of conceptual understanding are potential sources for innovation resulting in better engineering capabilities. We envision that over the long term, the research, education, and dissemination efforts being conducted in this project have the potential to facilitate a paradigm shift where such interfaces and tools as we have employed in our research will be used In the classroom. The design methodologies will dramatically expand the ability and lower the barriers for student engineers to design and analyze products, thereby becoming a part of our nationメs creative design capacity.

Unexpected Challenges

Our incoming student population concepts they have understood from prior undergraduate studies is very text book oriented at large. The variation of these students ability to apply it to more complex constructs is high. While this is a challenge our tool potentially can address this issue well. Another interesting challenge is the knowledge of the faculty who teach the more traditional classes in mechanics of materials, strength of materials etc. A tool such as ours is new, and its implications to learning is high. However the faculty themselves have to be educated about the potential of such tools to replace the standard text book problems. This is a challenge and an opportunity for us to define the next generation environment where the faculty can themselves publish custom exploratory problems on the web, and share it across universities, and have wide active participation and a community built around them.


Conference Papers and Presentations:
Sriram, A., Cardella. M, Ramani. K ヨ モIDEA Pen ヨ Interactive Design and Analysis through a Pen-Based Interfaceヤ, In Proceedings of the 121st ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana, June 2014

Sriram, A., Tolbert. D, Cardella. M, Ramani. K ヨ モモBridging the Gaps: Augmenting Design Learning through Computer-Aided Explorationヤ, In Proceedings of the ASME International Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference, August 2015

Ramanujan, D., Bernstein, W. Z., Cardella, M., & Ramani, K. (2014, August). Contextualizing Environmental Sustainability in Design Engineering Curricula. In ASME 2014 International Design Engineering Technical Conferences and Computers and Information in Engineering Conference (pp. V003T04A025-V003T04A025). American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Journal Papers
Ramanujan, D., Zhou, N., Bernstein, W. Z., & Ramani, K. A Guided Discovery Approach for Contextualizing Sustainable Design in Mechanical Engineering Curricula. Journal of Mechanical Design (In Review)

Booth, J., Reid, T., Ramani, K., Interventions for Teaching Sketching Skills and Reducing Inhibition for Novice Engineering Designers. Design Studies (In Review, Pending Acceptance).