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Daniel D. Frey1 , Adam Horton 2 , Mark Somerville3
Abstract ? This paper discusses a short, team-based design activity that is simple to reproduce at any college. The activity involves designing and building structures from expanded polystyrene foam boards. Hot wire cutters allow students easily and safely to cut the foam into myriad shapes. After a one or two-hour period for design, manufacture, and test, there is a short period for construction. The activity has been used as part of recruitment and admissions process at Olin College. The activity is described in sufficient detail to allow others to reproduce it including an equipment and materials list and a suggested set of instructions. The results of the activity are discussed. The student teams generated a wide variety of structures and employed many different building strategies. The activity seems to promote a sense of comradery among the candidates as well as excitement about active learning methods. Index Terms ? Active learning, admissions, collaborative learning, teamwork.

The design activity described in this paper was developed as part of the admissions and recruiting process for the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. This section will provide some background on Olin College and its admission process so that the reader will understand the context in which the activity was conducted. The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering was recently established through a large financial commitment from the F. W. Olin Foundation of New York. A new campus is currently being built in Needham, Massachusetts, adjacent to Babson College. In addition to providing the campus and facilities, the gift will allow all admitted students to receive a four-year, full-tuition scholarship. Olin College’s mission is to provide an engineering education to prepare leaders able to predict, create, and manage the technologies of the future. Consistent with this mission, the college seeks to implement many recommendations from the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education’s “Shaping the Future” Report [4]; The Olin curriculum is being designed to include increased emphasis on teamwork, communication, and critical thinking skills. Olin seeks to employ effective new teaching methods including active and collaborative learning. In order to accelerate the development of Olin’s curriculum, in fall of 2001 thirty new high school graduates joined Olin College as “Olin Partners”. The primary role of these partners has been to help the faculty and staff in developing academic programs, policies, and procedures. In the fall of 2002, forty-five more students will join their ranks and comprise Olin’s first freshman class. To select and recruit the inaugural freshman class, Olin College held three “candidate weekends” – two in the spring of 2001 and one in the spring of 2002. In all, over 200 prospective students and their parents visited the campus to learn about Olin College and interview for admission. The weekends included traditional interviews (both individual and group) for the purpose of assessing the candidates. The faculty and staff felt that the weekends should also include a design activity to: ? “Break the ice” ? Expose the candidates to active learning methods ? Engage the candidates in team work

The primary purpose of this paper is to document a successful active learning activity so that others can reproduce it, adapt it to their purposes, and improve upon it. Active learning, cooperative learning, and project-based learning are all becoming more widely used as evidence mounts that they are more effective than traditional classroom pedagogy [1,2,3]. These methods require significant effort for successful application. New active learning activities must be intellectually engaging, cost effective, and safe. The community of engineering educators can accelerate adoption of active learning techniques by sharing detailed documentation of activities that have proven to work well. The next section describes the context in which the activity was conducted. The section after that is a detailed description of the set-up for the activity including materials, equipment, and rules given to participants. The paper then describes the results of the activity including the kinds of design solutions the participants generated and the effect of the activity on the participants. Finally, the paper suggests some future directions for future research and development.

1 2

Dan Frey, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Olin College of Engineering, 1735 Great Plain Ave., Needham, MA 01760 dan.frey@olin.edu Adam Horton, Olin Partner, Olin College of Engineering, 1735 Great Plain Ave., Needham, MA 01760, adam.horton@students.olin.edu 3 Mark Somerville, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Physics, Olin College of Engineering, 1735 Great Plain Ave., Needham, MA 01760 mark.somerville@olin.edu

0-7803-7444-4/02/$17.00 ? 2002 IEEE November 6 - 9, 2002, Boston, MA 32 nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference T1A-1

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We chose to conduct the design exercise in the gymnasium at Babson College due to the fact that Olin College had minimal space and facilities at the time. This provided both opportunities and constraints. The large gym floor and high ceilings allowed us to have the candidates design and build large-scale artifacts (which tend to demand more teamwork than small artifacts). However, a gym limits the kinds of fabrication that can be considered (e.g., adhesives should be avoided since they can mar the floor). Given the opportunities and constraints of working in the gym, we chose to have the candidates build structures from expanded polystyrene EPS foam. EPS foam boards are readily available since they are widely used in construction. They are relatively inexpensive and very low density making the structures safer to build. EPS foam also cuts very easily with a resistively heated wire. We provided each team with a length of wire, wooden handles for holding the wire, and a DC power supply to heat the wire. This simple equipment enables participants to cut a wide variety of contours for structural elements and joints. Bows are often made available for hot wire cutting, but in this context, we prefer providing simple wooden handles that require greater teamwork for effective use. Figure 1 shows participants using the hot wire cutting equipment. ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?


A flag (to be raised atop the structure) Two 2” thick EPS boards (2’ X 8’) Two 4” thick EPS boards (2’ X 8’) DC power supply (we used BK Precision 1686 but any supply that can deliver 5A at 13V is fine) Insulated lead wires with alligator clips Eight foot length of “hot wire” (0.020” diameter stainless steel ASTMA580 works fine) Needle nose pliers with wire cutters Safely goggles for each participant Leather gloves (two pairs) Permanent marker for writing on the EPS boards An engineering pad for design work 20 pencils

Carefully crafted rules are an essential part of any successful design activity. Rules need to provide a motivating objective while allowing for a wide variety of creative design solutions. Rules also have a significant impact on safety. The complete rules for the activity distributed to participants in Spring 2001 are listed in Table II.




In addition to the foam boards and cutting equipment, a few additional tools were provided as described in Table I. Pencils and paper were an essential part of the kit to allow the participants to communicate their design ideas to the other team members. The pencils also proved to be useful for forming joints. We did not suggest this use of pencils to the participants, but every group seemed to discover the utility of pencils independently or borrow the idea from neighboring groups.

1. The goal is to raise your flag as high as you can via a freestanding, styrofoam tower. 2. Your tower must be made entirely out of the materials and supplies provided by us. 3. There is a table for each team with hot wire cutting equipment. An Olin faculty or staff member will show you how to use this. This will allow you to easily make a wide variety of shapes. The table and power supply should not be part of the tower. 4. From now until 11:50 AM is the design, manufacture, and test phase. Your team can work on designing the tower, making the parts, trying out different ideas, and practicing your construction techniques. 5. From 11:50AM to 12:00 noon is the construction phase. Your tower must be completely disassembled at the beginning of this phase. At 12:00, your tower must be complete and free standing. Nothing should be holding the tower up but the floor -- no team member, wall, or part of the ceiling should be touching the tower. 6. Please do not use blades of any kind to cut the foam. 7. Wear your goggles or glasses at all times. 8. Each member of your team must have at least one foot on the gym floor at all times. No climbing on the structures. No climbing on your teammates at any time. 9. An Olin faculty or staff member will be nearby. If there is any doubt in your mind about whether something is safe, please ask!

0-7803-7444-4/02/$17.00 ? 2002 IEEE November 6 - 9, 2002, Boston, MA 32 nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference T1A-2

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The goal of the first version of the design activity was to raise a flag as high as possible with a freestanding tower subject to the constraint that it had to be erected from separate parts in 10 minutes. During construction, each team member had to have at least one foot on the floor. This restriction was essential for safety. The materials in the towers are light and unlikely to cause harm if a structure collapses. But participants climbing on the structure or on each other create potential for injury. In spring of 2002, we had to move the activity into a different gym (the NCAA division III basketball finals took priority!). With lower ceilings, we needed to modify the objectives and the rules. We a sked the teams to build cantilevers instead of towers. The rules were the same except that rather than maximizing height, the teams maximized the horizontal distance that their structure extended across a line on the floor. To make this task more tenable, we added a 5-gallon jug to the kit as a counterweight and a spool of crepe paper streamer. The kit contents and rules for spring 2002 were very similar to those for spring 2001 (in Tables I and II respectively) with those minor exceptions noted above. In addition to providing rules, a pre-activity briefing is essential. In this briefing, we explained that this activity is a fun icebreaker intended to expose participants to modes of learning used at Olin College. We explained that the competition and the rules are similar to those in beach volleyball – they provide structure to the activity, but can get in the way if taken too seriously. We also restated the safety related rules and explained that those must be adhered to strictly.


One of the hallmarks of a successful design activity is that it allows for many routes to a competitive solution. Both the tower activity of 2001 and the cantilever activity of 2002 allowed students to develop many different solutions. The variety of solutions was exhibited at many different stages of the activity including discrete part fabrication. Some groups made curved shapes by using a short length of wire held perpendicular to the board’s surface (like a scroll saw). Other groups reduced manufacturing time by making an eight-foot cutting wire. This allowed them to make long, straight cuts much more quickly. The variety of solutions was also evident in the many ways that the towers were raised. One of the common construction techniques was to build the tower on its side and push it up later. Figure 2 shows this approach with the added innovation of using a spare piece of foam to support the structure during the transition. Another successful approach was to build the structure in stages, lift the existing structure, and place new stages beneath the tower to successively raise the flag higher. An especially inventive approach was to form joints in the structure and raise the tower by means of a “scissor” action (Figure 3).



0-7803-7444-4/02/$17.00 ? 2002 IEEE November 6 - 9, 2002, Boston, MA 32 nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference T1A-3

Session T1A
The cantilever activity in 2002 also allowed for a great variety of solutions throughout. For example, crepe paper was added to the kit in anticipation of the need for suspension cables. Some teams discovered that the crepe paper supported greater loads if twisted tightly like thread. Figure 4 shows how one team found a way to accelerate the twisting process using the pencils provided. were able to rebound and submit some form of solution within the allotted time.





There was also terrific variety in the basic structural concepts employed. One team simply made a stack of beams, each successively more slender than the one beneath it (Figure 5). Others made extensive use of suspension cables made of crepe paper (Figure 6). Others employed tapered beams with a single twisted or braided cable.

Another facet of the activity that we recommend is the brief celebration at the end. Although a single criterion was used to determine the “winner” each time we conducted the activity, we attempted to de-emphasize the competition by giving light-hearted awards to every team. Before and during the design activity, we fabricated “trophies” out of spare foam boards and matched the awards to the designs and design processes we observed. For example, Figure 7 depicts a team posing with “bright idea” award – a piece of spare foam cut into the shape of a light bulb. Their idea was an inventive joint design reminiscent of a splint used to support a broken bone.




The variety of design approaches resulted in a large variance in degree of technical success. The towers ranged in height from under 10 feet to over 25 feet. The cantilevers ranged in horizontal extent from under 10 feet to over 20 feet. A few structures collapsed during construction, but all

Near the end of the Candidates’ Weekend, candidates and their parents were asked to complete a survey form for evaluating the weekend as a whole. The survey form did not

0-7803-7444-4/02/$17.00 ? 2002 IEEE November 6 - 9, 2002, Boston, MA 32 nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference T1A-4

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specifically request information on the design activity, but it boring”, and that “perhaps a more creative evaluation did include a few broad questions that generated a process is necessary in order to get a better feel for the significant number of responses regarding the activity. candidates.” Questions that elicited comments on the design activity We believe that these activities are effective for included: breaking the ice with candidates, for introducing candidates to teamwork, and for getting candidates involved in hands? “Did you have fun?” and on learning. The candidates clearly have a good time. It ? “Did the Candidates’ Weekend help you better to also appears that it might be worth considering the use of understand Olin College and its people?” similar activities for outcomes assessment (as discussed in Examination of the Candidate Weekend evaluation the next section). forms strongly suggests that the candidates considered the activity worthwhile. Over the course of two years, 40 of 113 CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE WORK candidate respondents mentioned the activity on their form, and most of them mentioned it in response to the question, We have described a simple team-based design activity that “Did you have fun?” Virtually every one of these comments was developed as part of the admissions and recruiting is positive. Even the teams that experienced less technical process for the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. success reported having a positive experience. It is also The activity involves design and construction of large clear from candidates’ comments that the activity succeeded structures using expanded polystyrene foam. The activity as an icebreaker, as an introduction to active learning, and as has proven safe (with moderate supervision), can be a way to encourage teamwork. Some examples of candidate conducted in a short time period with minimal equipment, comments are: and admits a variety of creative solutions. Feedback from ? “I’ve never had so much fun in a design competition. over 100 participants suggest the activity is an effective way Our group gelled beautifully.” to break the ice with potential students and to introduce them ? “I loved the design project – I love it when you get the to teamwork, design, and active learning. chance to try something new and see how people work Although this activity was developed as an icebreaker together towards a common goal.” and was deliberately not used to assess the participants, the ? “The design project was the best part (of the weekend). authors are interested in future use of this and similar It was an excellent ice breaker.” activities for assessment. Some feedback from candidates Interestingly, very few parents mentioned the activity on suggests they would prefer to be selected for admission their forms. We believe that because parents only observed using design activities rather than conventional interviews. the activity, it made relatively little impression with them. Beyond the admission process, we might use similar The few parents who did comment felt the activity worked design activities to evaluate our students as they progress well for team building: “The styrofoam tower exercise was through their education. Olin College plans to set aside one the best ice breaker for the students, who bonded with their week each year for innovative, comprehensive assessment group members.” activities (we call these assessment events “gates”). Short One concern that emerges through discussions with design challenges such as the one described in this paper current students is the question of whether or not the activity may allow us to perform “authentic assessment” of our was being used to assess the candidates. Current students students’ creativity, design skills, and teamwork. For strongly felt that the activity should not be used evaluate the example, Hennessey and Amabile [5] have shown that the participants. In an attempt to make it clear that we were not Consensual Assessment Technique can provide reliable and using the activity for assessment, we chose in 2002 to have valid assessment of the creativity exhibited by work the activity conducted by current students (rather than products (e.g., poems and collages). Combining the faculty). Students did a superior job of running the activity, Consensual Assessment Technique with short, intense and feedback was uniformly positive. Clearly there are engineering design activities like the one documented in this tradeoffs associated with this decision – while it is likely that paper may be a significant opportunity to improve candidates felt more relaxed without faculty present, the engineering education. decision also meant that the activity could not act as a faculty-candidate ice breaker. ACKNOWLEDGMENT In contrast with current students who expressed concern The authors wish to thank the entire Olin College about the use of the activity for assessment, a number of candidates made comments that suggest they would prefer to community for their efforts, which were essential to the success of the activity described in this paper. be evaluated in activities like the foam tower exercise, rather than in a conventional interview setting. One candidate REFERENCES writes, “More group projects...would have been exciting and fun, and would have helped show how students work in [1] Hake, Richard R., "Interactive-engagement vs. traditional methods: A teams.” A number point out that compared to the design six thousand student survey of mechanics test data for introductory activity, the interview process that followed was “a little 0-7803-7444-4/02/$17.00 ? 2002 IEEE November 6 - 9, 2002, Boston, MA 32 nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference T1A-5

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physics courses", American Journal of Physics, Vol. 66, 1998, pp. 6474. [2] Springer, Leonard, Mary Elizabeth Stanne, and Samuel Donovan, “The effects of small-group learning on undergraduates in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology: a meta-analysis”, Research monograph number 11 of the National Institute for Science Education, 1997. Felder, Richard M., Gary N. Felder, and E. Jacquelin Dietz, “ A longitudinal study of engineering student performance and retention. V. Comparisons with traditionally taught students,” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 98, No. 4, 1998, pp. 469-480. George, Melvin D., "Shaping the Future: New Expect ations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology ", A Report on the Review of Undergraduate Education from the Committee for the Review to the National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, 1996. Hennessey, Beth A., and T. M. Amabile, “Consensual Assessment”, in Encyclopedia of creativity, M. Runco & S. Pritzker (Eds.),.Academic Press, 1999, pp. 347-359.




0-7803-7444-4/02/$17.00 ? 2002 IEEE November 6 - 9, 2002, Boston, MA 32 nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference T1A-6


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