Mechanical Engineering Design, a Teams Challenge

By Martin Sole, Senior Lecturer in Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering

Context of the module

Final year BEng (Hons) Mechanical Engineering students are expected to design a complex component which requires many different skills to be used; software modelling, calculations, materials, costs, research, assembly, and operation. Due to the skills and required complexities, industry favours Design Teams made up of engineers with different skills. Just before lockdown, our programme decided to introduce Design Teams for a project with our final year students.

What were the steps and processes that had to put in place to implement this approach?

The first challenge in introducing Design Teams was our students – they disliked the idea of a group assignment a lot. However, when we explained the reason for the change was to reflect that the industry they were hoping to enter expected team working, the majority accepted the necessary evil. The surprising thing was, that by the end of the semester, most teams said they enjoyed the experience and gained much more from it than they expected.  

What worked well?

Lockdown forced us to move the group project online which gave us an unexpected bonus. Providing students with the opportunity to work in teams in a virtual/online environment better reflected the reality of how Design Teams work in industry.

Were there any challenges or limitations to this approach?

The learning curve for all (students and lecturer) was steep and sometimes embarrassing. The first time I used Breakout Groups, I went into my first group, had a discussion, and then found I didn’t know how to get out of it. What made it worse, because I had said my goodbyes, the group started having a conversation about the lesson they had just had. Fortunately, they only had nice things to say which was good when a few minutes later I had to tell them I was still with their group. Slightly embarrassing.

What have you learnt from undertaking this approach?  Is there anything that you would do differently next time?

Once these early teething problems were past, working in teams and virtually has been a very positive experience. We have all learned new skills and most mechanical engineering lecturers plan to blend these skills into face-to-face and virtual lessons.

Students are more comfortable with team working and appreciate that the extra effort required brings many rewards. Their weakness in one area can be compensated by the strength of another team member and vice versa. The opportunity to experience peer to peer teaching, workload management, dispute management and develop social skills are some of the rewards.     

The challenges of lockdown over the last few years have been many. At Derby, we have done our best to find as many positives as we can. Lockdown appears to be ending, but our journey continues…