Document Type


Publication Date



Build to Learn: Effective Strategies to Train Tomorrow’s Designers use various representations to externalize their ideas, physical models being an important one. Engineering students need physical models are widely used by designers and their use is promoted as an effective design tool by industry and government agencies. However, very little is known about the cognitive effects of physical models in the design process. The available guidelines are conflicting. Some researchers argue for the frequent implementation of physical models; others observe that the use of physical models fixates designers. In light of these conflicts, this research project focuses on understanding the cognitive effects of physical models and developing guidelines for aiding designers in their implementation. We adopt a combination of controlled lab studies and qualitative studies to achieve this goal. The results from our controlled studies show that physical models supplement designers’ erroneous mental models and help them to come up with more ideas satisfying the problem requirements. However, this study failed to show presence of design fixation. This difference on results from prior observational studies leads us to the theory of Sunk Cost Effect in design problem solving with physical models, which is investigated in more detail with another controlled study. According to Sunk Cost Effect, as designers spend more time building physical models of their initial ideas,they tend to fixate to the variations of those. Our second controlled study confirms this theory.To infer these results in real-life situations, the data from a few industry-sponsored graduate projects and case studies of development of award-winning innovative products are analyzed qualitatively. The results from these qualitative studies show that in real-life design problem solving, building prototypes help designers to identify the problems in their ideas and rectify them. At the same time, building also tends to fixate designers to the variations of their initial ideas, which is in agreement with the prior observational studies. These results suggest that engineers need to be trained to build prototypes of their ideas during idea generation. This can help them in identifying the problems in their idea early on and rectify them. At the same time,due to Sunk Cost Effect, they need to spend minimum time in building. Hence they need to use easily modifiable materials for prototyping purpose. Our engineering curricula need to be updated to include this practice and learn method, so that we can train our future designers effectively.


© 2012 American Society for Engineering Education. This article originally appeared in the Conference proceedings of ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, 2012 and can be found online at this link.