Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Mechanical Engineering


Physical Models in Engineering Education: Making Tomorrow’s Designers Creative Innovation and creativity are two essential qualities for tomorrow’s designers. In order to nurture these skills in designers, our engineering curricula need to include more hands-on training. In recent times, many engineering educators have recognized the importance of hands-on training in engineering curriculum. Allowing students to build and test their own physical models and learn from their mistakes can be a very effective way of teaching. Recent studies have shown that physical models play a very important role in design innovation and creativity. Building and testing such models can lead designers to identify the flaws in their designs and thus create more functional ideas. At the same time, physical models have the potential to mitigate design fixation to undesirable features present in an example, where design fixation refers to the blind adherence of designers to the features in examples or their own initial ideas. Design fixation is a major hindrance in design creativity; training engineering students with potential tactics to mitigate fixation needs to be a very important component of engineering education. This paper investigates two hypotheses: (1) providing suitable warnings to novice designers can help the min avoiding design fixation (2) fixation to undesirable example features can be mitigated by building and testing physical models of the designs generated by the designers. These hypotheses are tested using a quasi-experiment conducted during a freshmen class project. Students complete their projects in four different experiment groups. One group receives a fixating example with a number of undesirable features. These undesirable features make the example a flawed one, as said features negatively influence the functionality of the design. The second group receives the same fixating example with warnings about the undesirable features that the example contains. The third group receives an effective example that does not contain said features. The fourth group completes the project without the help of an example (control).Students are instructed to build and test their designs and present the final working design to the instructor. The designs are photographed before each testing and the occurrence of example features in each design is studied. The results show that providing warnings about undesirable features in an example does not help students in the mitigation of design fixation. Meanwhile, as they build and test their ideas, they identify the flaws themselves and gradually mitigate the fixation. Their final designs, after many cycles of testing, contain significantly lower fixating features. This shows that building and testing physical models help students in learning through their mistakes and in improving the functionality of their ideas. In our engineering classrooms,learning through hands-on experiences needs to be encouraged in order to nurture a future generation of engineers who are creative and innovative.


© 2013 American Society for Engineering Education. This article originally appeared in the Conference Proceedings of ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, 2013 and can be found online at this link