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An innovative course gives first-year students early engineering experience as they work in teams to design, prototype and deliver solutions to meet real community needs
At Duke Engineering, students don’t wait until their final undergraduate years to get their hands busy and minds engaged in real-world design.
While traditional engineering curricula start off with years of analytical coursework, Duke’s new First-Year Design Experience gives students opportunities to think and work like engineers from the start.
Launched during the 2018 academic year, the program is now a foundational—and often transformational—experience for every first-year engineering student at Duke.
"Duke has a powerful opportunity now to lead the way in undergraduate education, by systematically and energetically refocusing our curriculum around active, engaging, problem-based research and design projects.
This is being done particularly well by Duke Engineering."
Vincent E. Price
President, Duke University
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In this course, students get an authentic design experience, right as they begin their education, said Ann Saterbak, a nationally recognized engineering educator who directs the Duke Engineering First-Year Experience.
“Engineering schools for a long time have introduced design concepts with wooden-stick bridge projects and the like," she said. "What’s been missing is the client, and understanding how an engineer works to solve real problems for a real person or organization.”
Sophia Santillan, who co-teaches the course, said its most innovative feature is that the projects come from real clients—from the Duke Lemur Center’s request for better animal feeders to a water-sampling drone for the Duke Marine Lab to a trash-trap concept for Durham, North Carolina's Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.
“First-year students learn about the engineering design process,” said Santillan, a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, “and then, apply that learning right away to a project with real-world application.”
From the Duke University School of Nursing, Duke Engineering freshmen learned that a model arm used by nursing students to practice IV insertion wasn’t lifelike enough.
The student team, who only months earlier had been high school seniors, chose an inexpensive commercial crafting material with a texture closer to that of human skin. They sewed the material to the covering of the model arm—and knew they were onto something when nursing students said during testing they couldn’t see evidence of previous needle marks.
A lemur feeder, a prosthetic arm, a water-sampling drone – see real-world design in action in this video from the Duke Engineering Design Pod »
The technical challenges of the course introduce first-year students to the rigor of engineering school—including engineering calculations, planning and communication. For assistance, teams can turn to mentors drawn from across Duke Engineering’s faculty, who provide coaching and advice.
Hands-on design opportunities don’t just pique the interest of first-year students. Research suggests that first-year students who take design courses are more likely to stay with engineering as their undergraduate degree. Students have improved self-efficacy—a genuine belief that they can succeed in problem-solving and meet challenges going forward.
“I came to engineering school knowing I wanted to work on medical devices,” said IV arm team member Emily Barre. “To say that I’ve had a taste of my dream, in my very first semester, is very, very exciting.”
Duke Engineering offers students a progressive immersion in engineering design, from the first-year overview to capstone design projects in their chosen disciplines. For example:
- Students in CEE’s Engineering the Planet course solve environmental engineering challenges, like improvising particulate-barrier breathing masks
- ECE’s Fundamentals of Electrical & Computer Engineering course culminates in an exciting competition in which student teams design and race robots to overcome obstacles using sensor data acquisition and processing
- ME's Engineering Innovation course teaches all students mechanical engineering fundamental skills and product design through numerous challenging projects, including creating safe, cost-effective toys for Happy Meals
- Students selected for the new BME Design Fellows program engage in a three-semester-long applied design and skill-building experience, plus a summer internship with a hospital or biomedical industry partner
- Every senior completes a Capstone Design Project in their major focused on producing actual engineering products — from custom parts for an autonomous underwater vehicle to devices for local clients with disabilities
- Some teams work on projects sponsored by industry partners, from local startups to global corporation