Experimentation and its Role in Engineering Design: Linking a Student Design Exercise to New Results from Cognitive Psychology

Christopher L. Magee and Daniel D. Frey
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Department of Mechanical Engineering and Engineering Systems Division
77 Massachusetts Avenue, E60-275, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307, USA
Email: cmagee@mit.edu, danfrey@mit.edu

This paper advances the hypothesis that engineering design is most effective when heuristics are used in many aspects of the design process, particularly in structuring sequences of experiments and adapting the design based on data. These heuristics appear to be natural behavior in the sense that engineers will use them when no training or external incentives are offered to encourage alternative approaches. Our observations of seven repetitions of a student design exercise with a total of over 300 students are consistent with our hypothesis. The approaches used by students appear to be economical and highly effective even though they are not consistent with theoretically optimal experimentation techniques. Our observations are related to recent research in cognitive psycho- logy, especially the work of the Adaptive Behavior and Cognition group regarding `fast and frugal heuristics’ and also the observations of some researchers in Design of Experiments. The implications for design practice and education are considered.


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