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'I Can Do This'—Duke’s First-Year Design Course Boosts Student Self-Efficacy

Student surveys also show improved teamwork, communication and leadership skills

In fall 2018, Catherine Alexander was working in a team trying to solve a problem faced by curators at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library—how to design an inexpensive but effective exhibit cradle to hold a valuable old book safely.

Alexander, like her teammates, wasn’t an engineer or product designer. She was a Duke student in her first semester at the Pratt School of Engineering. Their challenge was a class assignment in Duke’s innovative EGR 101 lab, also known as the First Year Design (FYD) Program.

“The students asked many questions, and they came up with a design that met our needs, looks beautiful, and costs a tenth of our handmade book cradles.”

Margaret Brown
E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation Exhibits Coordinator
David E. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

With a focus on tackling real-world problems, the course introduces first-year students to engineering and design thinking.

It also has a positive effect on student attitudes and beliefs necessary for successful learning, said Ann Saterbak, director of Duke Engineering’s FYD program and an expert on innovation in engineering education.

In a survey, students who took First-Year Design, showed that by semester’s end, their attitudes about their teamwork, communication and leadership skills, and their own “can-do” belief in their abilities, increased significantly.

For Alexander’s team, the design challenge was displaying rare books. They are rarely the same size or weight, so expensive custom cradles are made for exhibits. Could a better solution be found?

The team worked with their client, Margaret Brown, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation Exhibits Coordinator at the Rubenstein Library. After learning much from Brown, getting advice from a faculty expert in product design, and building prototypes in the tool-filled workshop that was their classroom, the team’s solution met or exceeded the requirements of the brief.

The team's solution: A cradle with three points of rotation, made of laser-cut acrylic, that can be created in 30 minutes and stores flat.

“The students asked many questions,” Brown said. “And they came up with a design that met our needs, looks beautiful, and costs a tenth of our handmade book cradles.”

Deceptively simple, the laser-cut acrylic stand is supremely adjustable—it can be made to rotate, twist and shift in three different ways. The stands were put into use in spring 2019, displaying artifacts of various sizes and shapes in a Rubenstein Library exhibit on campus. When the exhibition travels later this year to New York City, the book cradles will go along.

Their book cradle is now patent pending. That is the second potential patent to launch from First-Year Design: Another first-year student team has applied to protect their design for an adjustable wall hook for professional art museums.

Not every FYD project leads to a patent, nor is it expected to. Instead, the goal is to prepare creative engineers who are inspired and equipped to solve complex problems.

The book cradles in use at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

With the introduction of the EGR 101 lab and other new courses, Duke has transformed its undergraduate curriculum to emphasize design, data and decision sciences, computational thinking, mentored research opportunities and increasing each student’s entrepreneurial confidence.

“EGR 101 was a valuable class for me because it gave me an idea of all the different possibilities as an engineer,” said Alexander, who is from Richmond, Va., and hopes to major in mechanical engineering. “It showed me how fulfilling it could be to achieve something working as part of a team. It’s really fueled my love for engineering.”

Saterbak’s previous research has shown that students who engage with authentic engineering problems in their first year exhibit greater self-efficacy—that is, an individual’s belief in their own ability to achieve goals.

The book cradle design team

She said unpublished survey results from students who took Duke's First-Year Design Course showed statistically significant increases in self-efficacy related to creativity, engineering skills (tinkering) and engineering design, as well as teamwork, communication and leadership skills.

Measures of grit/perseverance, engineering academic engagement and belief in the value of creativity as a personal trait were unchanged, Saterbak said.

“There is more research to do, and we are staying in contact with these students and continuing to survey them,” Saterbak said. “We want to know if the statistically significant increase in attitudes and beliefs has a lasting effect.”

In the case of the book-cradle team, technical mentor Gregg Twiss, an adjunct associate professor in mechanical engineering and materials science, said he saw that growth firsthand during the 2018 semester.

“The cradle team embraced prototyping and iterative improvement,” he said. “Every week their models got a little better. Ideas that didn’t quite work before were gone, new ideas arrived and other ‘rough edges’ were smoothed out. It was great to see their increasing confidence throughout the semester.”

More about Duke First-Year Design