An Approach for Improving Design and Innovation Skills in Engineering Education: The Multidisciplinary Design Stream

David S. Strong
Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science
Queen’s University Kingston, ON, Canada K7L 3N6

Engineering practice is multidisciplinary by nature. While engineering projects may require discipline-specific specialists, the vast majority of engineering practice is carried out either by an engineering team of mixed disciplines, or by individual engineers who are competent across multiple fields. Blurring of the disciplines is a common requirement in engineering practice where budgets do not allow for a large staff.
In both Canada and the US, engineering accreditation boards have recognized the need for students to develop at least a modest level of competency to function in multidisciplinary teams. Engineering schools throughout both countries have dealt, or are dealing, with this requirement in a variety of ways.
In 2003, Queen’s was awarded a Chair in Design Engineering from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Recognizing the growing need for enhanced design and innovation education for undergraduate students, in 2005 the Chair program introduced an opportunity for students from all engineering disciplines to participate in an elective series of courses known as the Multidisciplinary Design Stream (MDS).
The first elective course in the stream, APSC 381 “Fundamentals of Engineering Design”, is offered over one term at the third year level and incorporates a broad range of lecture topics and interactive learning activities that are further reinforced with a concurrent design project in multidisciplinary teams of four students. The continuing course in the stream, APSC 480 “Multidisciplinary Design Project”, continues over the final two terms at the fourth year level, and requires APSC 381 as a pre-requisite course for enrolment. APSC 480 enhances students’ design, professional, and problem solving skills through their application in multidisciplinary teams on a funded, industry- sponsored project. Every team is supervised by one or more faculty members or “engineers in residence”, all of whom have significant engineering professional practice experience.
Although initially challenged with gaining acceptance by all departments, the MDS has been filled to capacity since its second year of operation. Enrolment demand continues to be high, and student feedback after graduation is very positive. Client response has typically been outstanding and is reinforced with a very high rate of year over year client return. Student surveys and a design skills assessment provide statistical evidence of increased competency. Now in its seventh year of operation, the MDS continues to evolve as an elective specialization stream, in parallel with the development of new faculty-wide initiatives in design and professional practice.


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