Assessing the Impact of an Introduction to Mechanical Engineering Course on the Capstone Design Process

Brian J. Novoselich, United States Military Academy
James E. Bluman, United States Military Academy
Rebecca A. Zifchock, United States Military Academy
Matthew Dabkowski, United States Military Academy


Engineers use scientific principles to design and build machines, structures, and other items to support humanity. A fundamental understanding of the design process and applying it to novel, ill-defined problems and situations is integral to success as an engineer. Introduction to engineering courses have become ubiquitous in engineering programs across the nation. These courses provide first-year students with a broad overview of the engineering profession and often provide students an introduction to the process of design work. These experiences provide a foundation for further design implementation throughout the rest of their undergraduate curriculum. Creating these courses pulls design curriculum forward from where it has historically been taught as part of the capstone design experience. Correspondingly, implementation of these early introductory engineering courses may influence student aptitude in their capstone design experience. The mechanical engineering program at The United States Military Academy (West Point) recently implemented a new Introduction to Mechanical Engineering course (Intro to ME) for first-year mechanical engineering majors (sophomore-level students). This course provides a range of introductory-level content to include the study and application of the design process. The course was developed with the intent to provide students a broad understanding of mechanical engineering profession and the design process so that further technical curriculum could be properly situated within the larger framework of engineering design and analysis. The purpose of this paper is to assess the implementation of the Intro to ME course on the students’ aptitude in their capstone design experience. This qualitative research examined the anonymous survey responses of mechanical engineering faculty that served as capstone design team advisors in the 2019 and 2020 academic years. These years provided longitudinal data corresponding to the last cohort of students that did not receive the new introductory course, and the first cohort that did. All data evaluated their skill levels during their senior year capstone design experience. Therefore, the survey was a direct opportunity to assess the result of an early introduction to the mechanical engineering profession and design process. The paper assesses the effect of the Intro to ME course on student grasp of the design process and their ability to apply the process to their capstone design project. Overall results were mixed with faculty indicating that students who completed the Intro to ME course differentially applied the design process but also had fewer gaps in their knowledge of the tools associated with the design process. Furthermore, there were no indications that the Intro to ME course provided a negative impact on the capstone design program. Faculty indicated a need to further integrate elements of the design process across the curriculum. The results provide ME faculty insights into how implementation of an Intro to ME course may affect the capstone design process at their own institutions.