Toy Story: Improvements to a First-Year Engineering Design Project Based on Student Feedback

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Department of Biomedical Engineering


This complete research paper describes changes in students’ perceptions of an open ended first-year project after Design Thinking concepts were utilized as a framework for project development. In the spring of 2019, we began a new mini-project so that students could experience the development of a prototype through 3D printing. Students were asked to design a bath toy for preschoolers which must float, be self-righting, and fit within the dimensions of 60mm x 60mm x 60 mm. 25% of their project grade consisted of the aesthetic appeal of the toy, as ranked by a panel of experts (students at the university preschool). Students worked in teams of four to design the toys. As a result of the 2019 student feedback, Designing Thinking concepts were incorporated, toy size limits were increased to 120 mm x 120 mm x 120 mm, individual student design submissions were increased, and more opportunities were included for team members to discuss designs prototypes and collaborate.

This study examines the changes in student perceptions of the project based on the changes made. It adds to the knowledge about open ended toy design projects within first-year programs by investigating how student effort, participation, and project perceptions are influenced by incorporating Design Thinking into first-year projects, resulting in more individual design work and increased prototyping. The mixed methods survey included Likert-scale questions about the students’ experience with the toy project, as well as open ended response questions to provide richer details about students' likes and dislikes with regards to the project. In total, the survey was completed by 286 students; 194 students completed the survey in 2019 and 92 students completed the survey in 2020. Paired two-tailed t-tests were used to determine if significant differences existed in student responses to the Likert-scale questions after changes were made to the project. Emergent coding techniques were applied within a grounded theory framework to determine themes in the student responses to open-ended questions.

After the changes to the project, students indicated more active participation, trying harder, expressing greater belief that the effort was worthwhile, and indicating greater belief that the time used was beneficial. Students also indicated they enjoyed the opportunity to be creative and prototype in design projects. When incorporating service-based projects into first year engineering programs, we recommend utilizing a Design Thinking framework for project development, with as few design restrictions as possible, and providing students the opportunity to witness clients using their final designs.

Publication Title

2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access