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An Energy Cube Project for Teaching Engineering Design Process (Mechanical Project)


This year, the College of Engineering and the Built Environment at our institute inaugurated a new Common First Year design project module that helps inform students in the selection of a specific engineering discipline.

Each student, prior to selecting their bachelor’s specialism, completes three group-based design  projects: a bridge design project (to familiarise students with civil and structural engineering), a RoboSumo project  (involving robotics, programming, electrical and electronics engineering), and an Energy Cube project (introducing  fundamentals of mechanical, manufacturing and design, and building services  engineering).

This paper focuses on how the engineering design process was taught via the Energy Cube. It is geared toward third-level engineering educators who want to introduce a structured approach to design (that makes explicit the critical stages and activities of  design). The paper explains how the Informed  Design Teaching and Learning Matrix was incorporated into the Energy Cube project and shows how the Matrix can serve as a valuable tool for design educators.

Finally, it presents key observations made by tutors over four separate occasions running the project and the modifications made to improve the students’  experience based on the analysis of class discussions, student performance evaluations, and more than 130 student surveys.


One fundamental learning outcome of the three-project module is that students become  familiar with the process of design. In it, they apply design tools to solve engineering problems. To provide basic structure for the design process, the lecturing team aligned the project’s weekly activities to a typical stage-gate product design process (as outlined in Table 1), which the lead author had used in industry.

Providing a Real-World Experience—a Typical Design Process in Industry:

A typical stage-gate design process, used in industry to spur innovative product design, consists of several fundamental stages. The first stage establishes the design  objective (DO). It identifies clearly the customers’ need and determines whether it is viable for the company to meet that need.

Customer requirements are translated into engineering requirements, with specific targets/thresholds set and agreed within a  multi-functional design team. If the project successfully passes through this decision ‘gate’ the ‘Investigation-to-Lab’(IL) stage follows calling for more in-depth research and exploration to develop alternatives.

Simplifying the Design Process:

An environmental scan of academic material and online resources was undertaken to see
how the design process could be taught to third-level or even second-level (final-grade) students. This helped in tailoring the industry stage-gate process to this project. It simplified the model so students could achieve basic understanding and  complete rudimentary design tasks.

Emphasising Important Aspects of the Design Process:

It was verbally emphasised that an effective design process is both structured and  iterative. Despite this, time was too constrained for iterative cycles. Students were asked to complete the vast majority of their work within six four-hour blocks. To echo the process driven nature of design, clear stages of the design process along  with specified deliverables for each phase were introduced.

Teaching the Design Process:

As mentioned above, students were introduced to design process theory via a simplified  stage-gate model. They practiced this theory by completing a design exercise and were  encouraged to adopt a similar approach in designing their Energy Cubes. Short tutorials were provided to help students develop specific skills, such as drafting a design  specification document and creating a weighted evaluation matrix.


The original Energy Cube project was developed by a team of lecturers within building  services engineering to help students learn about various aspects of heat loss in a  building envelope.

The project was revised by a multidisciplinary team of engineering lecturers—including one of the original developers—to emphasise additional learning  requirements such as design process, design tools such as CAD, and effective  communication and teamwork skills. The project was taught in four separate blocks of six weeks over two semesters.


To encourage students to develop their own ways to interpret the design process—and to enable them to explore and develop understanding of the design challenge—no additional information or templates were provided initially. Students were free to submit design  specifications and evaluation tools formatted according to their own understanding of  the project information.


To enhance our lecturing team’s efforts in (a) explaining effective design process to students and (b) modelling this type of behaviour for them, five of the 11 staff  involved with the overall module volunteered to read and discuss the article titled  “The Informed Design Teaching and Learning Matrix”. The article’s two-page matrix was analysed and our project assignments mapped to it. The group met several times  exploring ways to embed activities with effective practices and explain design  practices  effectively.


On the last day of each six-week session, students were surveyed about the level of  value and enjoyment they obtained in each session of the project (team-building,  design process, designing the cube, the physical build, testing, and presenting their final designs). In total, 133 students responded to the survey with an overall response rate of 80%. Although just 10% of respondents listed the design process tutorial session as the most valuable, a full 20% indicated that designing the Energy Cube was the most valuable activity they encountered.


Overall,the Informed Design Matrix was found to be an invaluable tool in teaching design process. It helped lecturing staff understand what students might be thinking or feeling during each stage of the design project. It provided specific advice to teachers at each design phase.

We believe it provides a solid framework and a clearly defined ‘end goal’ for new designers to work towards. With regard to the Energy Cube,  the very limited time allotted curtails the level of questioning, exploration, research, and depth each team could afford.

Our lecturing team found a roundabout way to encourage reflection, troubleshooting, and iteration by using the students’ final report as a time for them to identify areas for improvement and reflect on design process.

At this phase, we asked students to comment on the results they had found in testing their models. We asked them to recommend ways their designs could improve these are aspects of iteration in design.

Although here were mixed reviews regarding perceived value of the design session in the overall design project, and more work needs to be done to help students understand the value and enjoyment of design. In addition lecturers delivering the original building services energy cube module remarked on the much greater variation in designs among this group compared to their groups which tended to be, literally cubes.

Source: Dublin Institute of Technology
Authors: Fionnuala Farrell | Shannon Chance | Micheal O’Flaherty

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