Adaptive Expertise in Embedded Systems Design Courses: How a Curriculum Rooted in Iterative Prototyping Teaches Students Adaptivity
Adaptive expertise is a model of learning that posits two dimensions of development: efficiency and innovation. The mindset of an adaptive expert will serve any engineer by drawing upon diverse experiences to develop novel solutions to problems. Their mindset is based in lifelong learning, characterized by applying past experience to current design challenges. Solution design requires a process, and a breadth of experience is among the adaptive expert's greatest tools in identifying the approach to take in an unfamiliar situation. The fluidity and agility of their mind allows them to work effectively throughout their career in technical design, as the situation of an engineer's design work can vary drastically over the course of time. This paper describes a study on an innovative junior-level electrical and robotic systems project course taught at a large southwestern university that encourages students to develop adaptive expertise in the context of real-world design projects. By fabricating prototypes, students learn strategies for troubleshooting and technical design, and iterations of the part demand reflection on previous design thinking. This study seeks to answer the following research questions: (1) How does user-centered design stimulate abstractive design thinking? (2) How does fabrication of prototypes stimulate active design thinking? And (3) How is the classroom culture enabling engineering design in the optimal adaptability corridor? Critical incident interviews were conducted with stakeholders in the course, and a thematic analysis of the transcripts conducted. Results show that this project-based curriculum fosters adaptive expertise by stimulating both abstractive and active design thinking. This provides a framework for practicing adaptive design thinking in classrooms. Disseminating these findings to curriculum designers will encourage more engaging, effective classes that graduate adaptive experts.