Project Profile

Goals of the project

As a first exercise in engineering design, our first year honors class does a mechanical dissection exercise of common appliances and toys. In teams of four, they examine their device as a user, take it apart, imagine the design process that resulted in the product’s design choices, and put it back together to demonstrate that it still works. By examining the design choices of a successful product, they gain insight into the structure of the design process and competing design criteria typical in a commercial product. Students present their results, including suggested improvements, in poster session format. This gives them experience in this important oral and visual presentation format. It reinforces that we expect them, only one month into their engineering education, to be able to stand up and talk about technical subjects.

Nature of the Collaboration

We form teams of four students using a procedure utilizing the students’ results on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Students are given instruction about team roles, expectations of team members, and learning style differences that will help or may hinder their progress. They must meet outside of class as a team with approximately 2/3 of the task accomplished outside of class.


Students learn use of common tools, how common items are manufactured, common material usage, and by using this reverse engineering process, an appreciation of the design method.


Hand tools only, nothing more complex than an electric drill or a sander. It is important for beginning engineering students to have this common understanding.


We have been doing this exercise as a first step in student learning about the design process since we revised our first year program in 1997. We originally developed the idea from a Stanford short course attended by one of our instructors (Parsons).



Challenges encountered

There are always time and resource issues with engineering lab coursework. We now do this with 100 students (25 teams) each year, but we have done it with as many as 450 students at a time. We use appliances/toys that cost about $10-15 apiece, and most last through 3 dissections before they are discarded. Tools are very basic and replacement budget is not high. We have an old building and that is an advantage in that using a classroom as a workroom is not really an issue.

Major outcomes

This exercise is part of a comprehensive set of projects that introduce our first year students to different aspects of the design process and common engineering topics. For instance, for our coverage of Statics our student teams design a piece of foam core furniture. Constructed entirely from a single piece of foam core, it must support the students and accessories for its intended use. Our foam core furniture line is expanded every year, and includes chairs, student laptop desks, beach chairs, and the like.

Innovations, impact and successes

This exercise is just a piece of the puzzle, but our Engage program and its Honors version have made a demonstrated difference in first year retention at the University of Tennessee.