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Stanford's ME310 Course as an Evolution of Engineering Design


Abstract and Figures

ME310 is a radical course that has been taught at Stanford University since 1967. The year-long course is a graduate level sequence in which student teams work on complex engineering projects sponsored by industry partners. Student teams complete the design process from defining design requirements to constructing functional prototypes that are ready for consumer testing and technical evaluation. This paper presents the first longitudinal study of ME310 and characterizes the course in terms of nine eras, each with distinctive teaching philosophies and class dynamics. By looking at one engineering design course in its entirety, a rough parallel is gained of how the field of engineering design itself has evolved over the last forty years. Data for this study was drawn from 80 surveys, 28 interviews, and 42 years of historical university enrollment records, course archives, and course bulletins.
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Invited Paper
Stanford’s ME310 Course as an Evolution of Engineering Design
T. Carleton, L. Leifer
Center for Design Research, Stanford University, 424 Panama Mall, Stanford, CA 94305, U.S.A.,
ME310 is a radical course that has been taught at Stanford University since 1967. The year-long course is a
graduate level sequence in which student teams work on complex engineering projects sponsored by
industry partners. Student teams complete the design process from defining design requirements to
constructing functional prototypes that are ready for consumer testing and technical evaluation. This paper
presents the first longitudinal study of ME310 and characterizes the course in terms of nine eras, each with
distinctive teaching philosophies and class dynamics. By looking at one engineering design course in its
entirety, a rough parallel is gained of how the field of engineering design itself has evolved over the last forty
years. Data for this study was drawn from 80 surveys, 28 interviews, and 42 years of historical university
enrollment records, course archives, and course bulletins.
Engineering Design Education, Problem-Based Learning, Innovation, Immersion, Simulation
Despite its age, ME310 is not your traditional engineering
class. Taught since 1967, ME310 has developed a strong
reputation at Stanford University as a cross between a
senior capstone course, prototyping laboratory, and
microcosm of Silicon Valley. The course combines the
best of interdisciplinary teaching and problem-based
learning for engineering design. ME310 also offers a
successful formula of global networked innovation and
provides a documented test bed of engineering education.
In short, it is remarkable that the same course has been
taught continuously for 42 years. Why does ME310 work?
What has changed and held consistent over this time
span? How has the course influenced other educational
practices in the U.S. and around the world? This paper
presents the first longitudinal study of ME310, examining
the dynamics between engineering design education and
practice and the effects on diverse course participants,
including faculty, students, project coaches, and industry
ME310 is a year-long graduate course offered through
Stanford’s School of Engineering. It is mandatory for
Stanford master’s students specializing in Engineering
Design and an elective for students from other disciplines.
Due to various Stanford policies, the course was originally
listed as ME201 from 1967 to 1974, then ME210 from
1975 to 1998, and next as ME310 from 1999 to 2009. The
course will generally be referred to as ME310 throughout
this paper. Students are required to enroll in all three
quarters of the academic year.
In this Stanford course, student teams work on complex
engineering projects sponsored by industry partners.
Example industry partners are Autodesk, BMW, Lockheed
Martin, Nokia, Panasonic, and Xerox Corporation. Each
team of students selects a real problem or opportunity to
pursue, which are provided by the industry partners. Each
team also receives a hefty project budget and dedicated
lab space (commonly known as the “310 loft”). Teams are
typically comprised of three or four Stanford students, and
in recent years, each team has collaborated with a
similarly sized team at a global partner university. All
student teams complete the engineering design process
from defining design requirements to constructing
functional prototypes that are ready for consumer testing
and technical evaluation. Throughout the year, teams
may choose to enlist the help of vendors, faculty, or
students from other Stanford courses, the latter frequently
from computer science, for their projects. The course
culminates in a student project showcase, and each
industry partner receives detailed documentation and
prototypes for their respective projects.
Moreover, a broader network supports the student teams
each year. Project coaches are assigned to specific
teams, providing relevant expertise and project advice.
Coaches are often faculty or industry professionals, many
of whom took the course as students. In addition, multiple
teaching assistants and a small administrative team
coordinate ME310 operations and logistics. In the last ten
years, the course has been available remotely to working
professionals through the Stanford Center for
Professional Development (SCPD) and to graduate
students at global academic partners. Global academic
partners for 2008-09 include Pontificia Universidad
Javeriana (Columbia), Helsinki University of Technology
(Finland), the Hasso Plattner Institut (Germany), and
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico). In
recent years, several student teams at Stanford have
been matched with a corresponding student team from a
global academic partner. Every global team also has its
own faculty, teaching assistants, project coaches, and
dedicated lab space.
Figure 1 presents a visual summary of all key
relationships occurring within the course at two key
points, when the course was established as a yearlong
sequence in 1972 and then in 2009.
CIRP Design Conference 2009
Figure 1. Network view of ME310 in 1972 versus 2009.
3.1 Research Objectives
The objective of this research study is to describe the
evolution of ME310 from its inception in 1967 to 2009.
Evolution is an apt term because, in order to thrive, the
course has had to adapt to multiple conditions arising
from within Stanford University, as well as external drivers
in the global economy, throughout its history. By
synthesizing multiple data sources, a more complete
understanding of this dynamic course can be formed.
Data sources for the study are described below.
3.2 Web Surveys
The total population of ME310 was not available to survey
due to a lack of information about all members. For
example, certain faculty members are deceased, older
student alumni have drifted from contact with Stanford,
and various industry liaisons have changed company
affiliations. Two small and carefully chosen samples were
used to represent the population for ME310 based on
either available sample size or course influence. First, a
convenience sample of student alumni was drawn from an
online community, composed of 128 members. In total,
47% of the student alumni (n=60) participated in the
survey. A large contingent (39%) of them returned in other
course roles, namely as project coaches (17%), teaching
assistants (15%), or researchers (7%) of ME310 in
following years. Sixteen participants (27%) were from
global academic partners.
Second, a random sample of 104 industry liaisons and
project coaches was generated from a course database.
These project coaches were all senior working
professionals. Approximately 19% of this industry sample
responded (n=20). Interestingly, 35% of the industry
liaisons were ME310 student alumni, and two (5%) of the
global faculty also served as project coaches to student
teams at their respective universities.
Both surveys were conducted online, and all responses
were confidential. Although not statistically significant,
taken together, the two web surveys (n=80) provide a
rough approximation of the total course population.
Survey questions addressed prior experience, course
participation, lessons learned, and personal outcomes.
3.3 Individual Interviews
Interviews offered a way to gain deeper perspective about
specific roles and intervals in course history. Interview
candidates were identified by their course role and year of
participation in order to generate a greater diversity of
viewpoints. Twenty-eight individual interviews were
conducted over a five-week period with the entire ME310
network, including: faculty, industry liaisons, project
coaches, teaching assistants, student alumni, global
academic partners, and administrative staff. Many of the
interview subjects served multiple roles over the years,
for example, returning as course teaching assistants and
later as project sponsors. All interviews were semi-
structured and followed a common interview guide.
3.4 Course Archives
Each year, all student teams in ME310 produce detailed
documentation about their project, including a final report.
All reports are available in hard copy (digital only in recent
years) for content analysis. Project reports serve as a
valuable body of knowledge about ME310, and at a
minimum, reveal information about team size, industry
category, project type, and solution timeframe. A
representative sample of 135 project reports was
reviewed for this study. In addition, all industry partners
provide a project proposal to their respective student
team at the start of the course, and available proposals
from recent years were also examined. Other materials,
such as videotapes and prototypes, were not examined.
3.5 University Course Descriptions
In addition, ME310 faculty have updated the course
description since 1967. Subsequently, 42 years of course
descriptions have been captured in the annual Stanford
University Bulletin, the university’s official catalog of
courses and degree requirements. By analyzing these
course descriptions over time, broad trends can be
detected in curriculum focus and language use. In other
words, has ME310 been communicated differently to
students, and what do these changes reveal about the
course in light of its overall evolution?
3.6 University Enrollment Records
The University Registrar maintains all student records,
including course enrollment. This study examined the
change in ME310 enrollment by quarter to help identify
average attendance, peak years, and drop-off rates, as
well as changes in faculty and teaching staff. Course
records were only available from 1983 to current. The
U.S. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
requires that all student data in academic files remain
private, so only general enrollment data was reviewed.
3.7 Additional Research of ME310
Other scholars at different times have explored specific
dynamics of ME310, such as team interaction [1],
coaching [2], collaboration support [3], and team
performance [4]. These studies provided further context.
4.1 Design Engineering Education
Much has been written about the state of engineering
education. Recent studies have highlighted growing
challenges, specifically in globalization and innovation,
which require improved skills in synthesis thinking and
system building by engineering students [5][6]. One might
argue that this need has been constant in the last century,
and by reviewing longitudinal studies, the changes and
progress of engineering education over time can be
understood, specifically in the field of design engineering.
In one of the few examples of a longitudinal study of
design education, the authors discussed the need to train
students in both hard and soft skills [7].
At Stanford University, ME310 was designed to and
continues to address exactly the issues raised by these
authors. The course has functioned as a dynamic
combination of problem-based learning (PBL), immersion,
and simulation, which is illustrated in Figure 2. Most other
courses in Stanford’s engineering curriculum and broader
design program may combine up to two approaches;
however, ME310 consistently unites all three approaches
for student learning. The hands-on design experience
becomes invaluable knowledge for the students’ work and
research after ME310. Each approach is discussed in
more detail.
Figure 2. ME310 as the dynamic combination
of problem-based learning, immersion,
and simulation approaches.
4.2 ME310 as Problem-Based Learning
According to literature, characteristics of PBL include an
emphasis on problem solving, a role of a facilitator or
coach, and the use of reflection and self-directed
exercises [8]. Students are actively engaged in their own
learning process, becoming co-responsible for their
education. A general finding of PBL is that student levels
of interaction and participation increase tremendously.
While the origins of PBL are often traced to medical
education in the late 1960s [9], their foundations at
Stanford date to the mid 1950s, lying at the roots of the
ME310 course. Professor John Arnold was recruited from
the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology to Stanford's
Mechanical Engineering department in part because of
his success in PBL teaching. Arnold brought together
students from multiple disciplines to work in teams on
industry-based (and also future-based) problems [10].
Writing in 1952, Howe noted: "Professor Arnold wants to
develop men who can find drastic new solutions to old
problems, and discover and solve new problems not yet
recognized" [11].
ME310 is a PBL course, in which students analyze real-
life problems from industry and synthesize new
opportunities. Stefik and Stefik noted that ME310 had
adopted a project-based model using coaches instead of
traditional product design education [12]. As a variant of
PBL, ME310 has been focused on product-based
learning, in which students are given the opportunity to
directly define and build a complex product component or
system from concept to prototype [13]. More than
evaluate mock scenarios, students are challenged to
define real requirements and build solutions for real
companies. Several different PBL models have been
proposed over the years, recently by Savin-Baden, who
posits five models of PBL including Model II, which is
“focused on a real-life situation that requires an effective
practical resolution” [14]. Model II may come closest to
describing the nature of ME310. Savin-Baden has found
that this type of model arises from curricula with strong
ties to industry and tends to emphasize process skills,
such as teamwork and communication, over content
skills. The other models typically present sample problem
scenarios to students, not necessarily from the real world.
4.3 ME310 as Immersion
ME310 also provides an immersive experience. Students
are thrust into a realistic situation that requires their full
concentration over three quarters. Every detail in the
project, such as vendor selection and billing, requires
their real-time attention and decision. It is a time-
consuming engagement, often to the detriment of other
courses, yet on reflection, nearly all students recall it as
one of their best memories from college.
While a preponderance of immersion studies can be
found in advanced virtual environment research, several
studies have discussed the benefits of immersive
environments in other applications [15]. ME310 uses a
combination of hardware and software tools to create an
immersive physical space that functions as a central base
throughout the year. The physical environment strongly
influences student behavior, and the objective has been
to augment the real space, stimulating the imagination
using video and other digital equipment. In addition, all
global teams interact with Stanford teams through
mediated channels.
4.4 ME310 as Simulation
Lastly, ME310 serves as a simulator. The course is a
training ground. Students learn by doing, prototyping the
design process and the role of a design engineer. They
gain practice in how to interact with other engineers and
how to design in context. Beyond testing the prototype,
many students also test different project roles, alternating
responsibilities within their team. ME310 is a safe
environment to experiment, fail, and try again. Simulation
training is highly effective and sees extensive use today
in medical applications [16] and the military [17].
Kneebone notes, “Simulators can provide safe, realistic
learning environments for repeated practice, underpinned
by feedback and objective metrics of performance” [16].
ME310 has also often been likened to a pre-incubator. In
many ways, this comparison is not surprising because
studies show that successful incubators are closely linked
with academic institutions. Ample research has been done
in recent years about university-related incubators, which
provide a simulation environment for technical
entrepreneurs to start a new business with the support
and resources of a university. Smilor and Gill documented
several case studies of the earliest efforts by American
universities [18]. One major finding from their research
was that no one ideal model exists, due to multiple
variables, and any successful model may not be
transferable in its entirety to another area. Another key
finding was that many incubators address the need for
entrepreneurial training and education through a
combination of formal and informal programs. The
objective is to instill additional business skills and know-
how, so that the entrepreneurs can effectively build their
businesses outside the safety of the incubator.
Recent research by Tornatzky, Sherman, and Adkins
found that the majority of best-in-class incubators were
connected to a research-intensive university, medical
research institution, or research laboratory [19]. It proves
to be a mutually beneficial relationship. While the
incubator provides a mechanism for commercializing
university research, the university fulfills an emerging
obligation to contribute directly to regional economic
development. ME310 industry partners who participated in
the study stressed the benefits of their Stanford affiliation
and collaboration. In addition, university-related
incubators are often used as a source of research for
university faculty and students [18]. Similarly, ME310 has
served as a research laboratory in its history.
5.1 Nine Eras in History
By looking at one course in engineering design in its
entirety, a rough long-term parallel is gained of how the
field of engineering design itself has evolved over the last
forty years. Several trends are apparent, as the course
has shifted from phase to phase. The evolution of ME310
is analyzed primarily from an internal viewpoint, looking at
the changes driven from within the course that have
directly affected course pedagogy.
ME310 has been characterized by nine eras, each with
distinctive teaching philosophies and class dynamics. In
short, engineering design has been taught (a) as
synthesis, (b) as an immersive process, (c) as real world
problems, (d) as mechatronics, (e) as redesign, (f) as
distributed teamwork, (g) as entrepreneurship, (h) as
global innovation, and most recently, (i) as foresight.
Although these eras are presented as separate time
periods, in actuality, they overlap. Table 1 summarizes the
nine eras in the course history.
Smilor and Gill, when examining case studies of
university-related incubators, found that “In many
instances, the unique character of an incubator is
determined by the personality of the management team”
[18]. Likewise in ME310, the faculty drove much of the
changes to spark each era, often bringing their personal
teaching beliefs about engineering design and learning to
the forefront. Savin-Baden makes a similar comment
about faculty influence in PBL approaches, noting that
“the positioning of knowledge in a problem-based learning
programme will tell us more about the pedagogical stance
of the staff than the forms of knowledge in action” [14].
The nine eras are described in the following sections.
5.2 Era I: Synthesis (1967–1972)
It would help to explain the context of Stanford University
during the late 1960s. At this time, the Mechanical
Engineering department was organized into three major
divisions: Design, Thermosciences, and Nuclear. The
Design Division was largely concerned with
“comprehensive systems design, product design,
mechanical analysis and mechanisms design, and design
components” [20]. In 1966, the actual development of
student designs in any course was optional, subject to the
instructor’s approval. The precedent was set in 1967 with
ME219, a three-quarter series that allowed graduate
students to gain practice designing a machine: “The intent
of the series is to involve the student in a major portion of
the design-development process”. The class was updated
to stress multi-disciplinary thinking, and students turned
working drawings into functioning systems. Also in 1967,
Professor Henry Fuchs and other faculty introduced a
new graduate course, in which students analyzed real-life
case studies from industry using a combination of
interviews, artifacts, and other records. This course also
fulfilled a degree requirement in “Engineering Synthesis”,
which emphasizing the value of integrating analytical
skills with creative skills. This provided additional
exposure to how practitioners worked and the problems
they faced in engineering design.
Professor Jim Adams became the director of Stanford’s
Design Division in 1970. Adams and Fuchs were invited
to Harvey Mudd College, a small private college in
Southern California, to tour the Engineering Clinic, which
had been established in 1963 as a series of required
courses “in which junior students form interdisciplinary
teams to tackle company-sponsored design and research
projects” [21]. Similar programs in cooperative “co-op”
education were underway at other universities at the time,
providing students with practical work experience. The
visit provoked Adams to reconsider Stanford’s course.
5.3 Era II: Immersive Process (1972–1974)
Both Adams and Fuchs were impressed with these
existing practical models and decided to expand ME 201
into a three-quarter sequence that fit Stanford’s design
culture in 1972. They took the synthesis focus a step
forward by emphasizing the immersive process of design
in the second era of ME310. Not only was it important to
unite multiple knowledge areas, it was also beneficial for
students to directly experience the design process. The
course was focused on learning by doing. Each quarter
built on knowledge from the prior quarter, so the entire
year was integrated. In particular, product testing and
debugging was an important belief to Adams, helping
students to understand “the difference between theory
and actuality”. From prior industry experience, he knew
problems in hardware were complex, and the earlier a
student could learn how to prototype and test, the more
successful the final result could become. The new course
appealed to local industry partners, and Adams
explained, “It was a good way to bootleg ideas.”
Looking back, one student, whose degree specialized in
engineering design, reflected, “For me, it was the first
time I had ever really done an engineering design
project.” In terms of structure, each student team typically
worked independently as a unit and had little interaction
with other project teams. A Stanford Design Division
faculty member served as a project advisor to every
student team, so the entire division was engaged with the
student projects. Aside from general metrics, course
success was primarily measured by annual reviews
conducted by Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society.
5.4 Era III: Real-World Problems (1975–1981)
As Adams took on different responsibilities at Stanford,
the course transitioned to other faculty, including
Professor Philip Barkan, over the next seven years. The
third era of ME310 focused even more on real-world
problems, and the course language reflected an
emphasis on the design considerations in manufacturing.
A co-instructor said, “The projects all came out of the
corporate world. It was very much oriented to real design.
We had clients come in from industry to critique
[students’] designs. That was a very positive part of the
program.” In 1979, Barkan began the tradition of
submitting final project reports to the James F. Lincoln Arc
Welding Foundation, which sponsors an annual
competition to recognize and reward achievement by
engineering and technology students in solving design,
engineering, or fabricating problems. For many
subsequent years, Stanford University dominated
Lincoln’s college graduate division [22].
5.5 Era IV: Mechatronics (1981–1990)
By the early 1980s, the course shifted again to combine
knowledge of mechanical engineering with electrical
engineering and computer programming. With the growth
in mechatronics and smart products – a class of products
that rely on computer processing technologies and
embedded systems – design for manufacturability had
become a main concern. A project advisor then explained
that the objective for students was to “learn systematic
tools during design to evaluate manufacturing”. One
student noted his graduate degree concentration as
“mechatronics in the survey, and another student
explained that he took the course because he “wanted to
use a CAE (computer-aided engineering) package for a
real industry project”, reinforcing the growing importance
of engineering software then.
By 1988, Professor Larry Leifer was the lead instructor for
ME310. He had taken ME310 from Adams as a graduate
student in the 1970s and then been involved as a project
coach for several years. (Leifer also remembers the
'Philosophy of Design' course he took with John Arnold in
the early 60s, which ingrained in him the importance of
asking questions, a lesson that Leifer repeats to his
students today.) As director of Stanford’s Smart Product
Design Laboratory, Leifer had earlier expanded the
graduate course in mechatronics into a three-quarter
series with industry-sponsored projects, in hopes to mirror
the success of ME310. He explained, “Mechatronics is a
particularly good medium for introducing PBL (product-
based learning) because of its dependence on
interdisciplinary collaboration” [13].
Working with other Design faculty, Leifer began to
formalize elements of the emerging model of design
thinking that had become to exemplify the department's
teaching, building the foundations for what would become
the product design firm IDEO and the Hasso Plattner
Institute of Design at Stanford. ME310 became a gradual
blend of design research and practice. Leifer also revised
the teaching model; instead of assigning a faculty
member per student team, he engaged industry
professionals, experienced students, and other volunteers
as project advisors. These advisors were soon referred to
as industrial coaches, recognizing the value of hands-on
guidance and mentoring on the student teams.
5.6 Era V: Redesign (1990–1995)
The next era of ME310 gradually moved away from an
emphasis on mechatronics to a growing emphasis on
rapid prototyping. Student assignments in the first quarter
taught them about the journey of product realization,
starting with raw product concepts. Students were pushed
to iterate and rework all mockups and prototypes, and
they were encouraged to fail early and to fail often to
Design Pedagogy
1967 -
Adams, Staff
1972 -
Immersive process
1974 -
Piziali, Liu,
Barkan, Staff
Real world problems
1981 -
Leifer, Staff
1990 -
Leifer, Staff
1995 -
1998 -
2004 -
Global innovation
2009 -
Table 1. Nine eras in ME310 history.
improve their thinking. One of Leifer’s fundamental design
axioms became “All design is re-design.” He gradually
added, “All learning is re-learning. All coaching is re-
A visiting lecturer, who co-taught ME310 one year, noted:
“The course somehow embodied the Design Division. You
get physical, you mock things up, you test your ideas in a
disciplined and creative way.” A student, who later
became a project coach, took ME310 because he had
heard about the course’s reputation: “It was a straight
jump into Stanford's design philosophy”. Another student
echoed this comment, “I thought I would get indoctrinated
in the Stanford way of thinking.”
During this era, benchmarking and instrumenting the
design process became critical, allowing ongoing design
activity and knowledge sharing to be recorded by teams.
By 1993, all project documentation and team
communication tools had moved online. Leifer explained,
“The focus is on capturing and re-using informal and
formal design knowledge in support of ‘design for re-
design’” [23]. In 1994, the course was offered remotely to
professional students through the SCPD (then called
SITN) program, which provided class lectures live via
television broadcasts and also on videotapes as a variant
of distance education. Although SCPD students missed
experiencing lectures in person, most lived locally, so they
often joined their respective project teams outside work
5.7 Era VI: (Distributed) Teamwork (1995–1998)
Over the next four years, Leifer increased the emphasis
on teamwork, experimenting with different ways to
enhance team culture and cohesion. Leifer realized that
students in mechanical engineering could not become
students overnight in electrical engineering or computer
science, and it was more effective if different types of
students collaborated and shared skill sets. Leifer built on
another axiom that design was a social process. For
example, multiple assignments in the first quarter allowed
teams to mix up members repeatedly, so students could
learn each other’s working styles and skills before
choosing a final project team. Team formation was
directed to achieve optimal balance and diversity by using
modified profiles of Myers-Briggs and Jung attributes,
which many felt positively influenced project success [22].
A student alumni from this era felt that, of all course
activities, participating in group discussions had the
strongest value and that providing peer reviews on other
projects had lasting value – both which rank highly in
team interaction and collaboration.
Other course traditions had become fully indoctrinated,
including a weekly beer bash called SUDS (soon
translated as a Slightly Unorganized Design Session),
which helped establish a sense of community among
students. Leifer joked, “I lived off the donut cart at Hewlett
Packard, so that was in there as a notion. I learned one
can do that; one should do that.” In 1996, ME310 was
opened to select global team members to further increase
team diversity. Professor Mark Cutkosky became a co-
instructor in 1997, quickly immersing himself in the ME310
culture and allowing Leifer to step away to establish and
oversee the Stanford Learning Lab, now rebranded as the
Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL).
5.8 Era VII: Entrepreneurship (1998–2004)
Cutkosky led ME310 for the next several years, and the
character of the course sharpened even more. The
definition of design engineers was broadened in scope to
emphasize skills in entrepreneurship and leadership,
reflecting the Silicon Valley zeitgeist and growing startup
fervor. Stanford engineering students responded
positively. The course was an opportunity to learn about
“a business environment”, develop a corporate-sponsored
project that was “part of the student’s portfolio”, and
function “like a small start-up company” [24]. The final
report was recast as a “deliverable”, adopting business
jargon, and the digital collaboration tools were further
improved. Cutkosky joked that the course itself is “like a
company that has 100% turnover every two years,” and
the instructors and coaches provided the thread of
In the spirit of redesign, Cutkosky tweaked several
assignments and added several new design methods to
the course curriculum. He wanted students to continually
challenge their assumptions throughout the design
process. He explained, “It grew out of my frustration that
students were reaching premature closure” and shrinking
the design solution space unnecessarily. For example,
the Critical Function Prototype asked students to build a
mockup that focused on the one most vital feature of their
product concept, which allowed them to refocus and
prioritize their efforts, ideally from a user perspective. In
addition, the Dark Horse Prototype required students to
build a mockup that was potentially promising, but
rejected earlier for a preferred approach, in order to revisit
first hunches and further push the limits of team creativity.
These two methods have since become embedded in
Stanford’s design ethos.
Leifer returned from his term at the Stanford Learning Lab
with new ideas about active team learning and
communication. Leifer and Cutkosky decreased the
emphasis on global collaboration and instead focused on
student interaction. Cutkosky explained, “The challenge is
to create a ‘community’ atmosphere that promotes
learning between teams as well as within each team” [25].
Local team bonding increased even more. One student
dropped a competing course, which combined
mechanical engineering with business skills, because
ME310 “seemed more fun, like a community.” Another
student said, “We had at least one other class party at
some point where we did DDR (Nintendo’s Dance Dance
Revolution) and we regularly did dinner together, took
other classes together, did karaoke, went skiing, etc. The
teaching assistants were also instrumental in the class
bonding, in addition to being good sources of help during
the course. I believe that the depth and extent of our
class community was more significant than any other
class I've seen since.” Reflecting on lasting lessons for
career and life, a third student from that era reported that,
“Personalities affect design just as much or more so than
design skills.”
5.9 Era VIII: Global Innovation (2004–2009)
Building on what they learned about team collaboration,
Leifer and Cutkosky expanded the influence of
engineering design in the most recent era of ME310. By
2004, engineering design was truly multidisciplinary,
multicultural, and even multi-purpose. Since the mid
2000s, the rhetoric of design thinking had risen, showing
the world of business how design provides a viable
strategy to convert user needs into market demand. More
than entrepreneurship, engineering design was now an
essential element of innovation, both in terms of process
and outcome. Design was also enmeshed in a global
business context, and Leifer was particularly interested in
exposing Stanford students to more of the world outside
Silicon Valley. By 2005, nearly half of the Stanford
student projects were paired with global academic
partners, and by 2007, all projects had a sister global
team. All global partnerships were organically structured,
requiring each student team to actively decide and
negotiate their own relationships. Several student alumni
commented strongly about learning global team
management, both positively and negatively, as a lesson
for their careers and lives.
Students who took ME310 during this era were also more
business-savvy, with 30% bringing at least two years of
previous industry experience into class. The reasons
students gave for enrolling in the course also ranged
widely, and one said that he desired the “practical
application of design thinking to business proposals.” In
addition, unlike all previous eras, the students surveyed
from this era ranked traditional “soft” process skills – such
as project coordination, team management, presentation
skills, and startup mentality – as having lasting value,
compared to discipline-specific content skills. ME310 was
an opportunity to connect with future employers, and 21%
of the alumni surveyed said that they received a job offer
from one or more ME 310 industry partners. Others used
ME310 to build a personal network, and over a third of
student alumni were in touch with 10 or more other
5.10 Era IX: Foresight (2009–)
A ninth era has emerged this academic year, focused on
foresight. Analysis of the data shows that, from 1967 to
2004, all proposals from industry partners asked students
to address an immediate problem, and the corresponding
solutions were to be built in the next product cycle. By
2004, industry partners began to extend the project time
horizon, requiring students to contemplate solutions in the
far future. Sample project proposals described "future
elderly environments” and the “technician of the future".
Instead of short-term design solutions, a growing number
of industry partners wanted students to explore possible
opportunities and future users 15 years or more in the
future. Figure 3 depicts the steady rise in long-term
industry proposals.
Responding to the recent trend, Leifer engaged Professor
William Cockayne to develop a sister course, ME410,
which was piloted in 2008-09 at Stanford. Built on an
existing foresight program underway since 2002, ME410
has taught students complementary methods in foresight
strategy and long-range innovation, so that they could
develop a broader context for their subsequent efforts in
engineering design [26]. Time will tell about the exact
nature of this shift in pedagogy and in industry partner
interests. ME310 has continued to emphasize design
thinking and innovation.
At Stanford University, ME310 has positively influenced
the development of other courses, such as the three-
quarter course series about smart product design. The
broader impact of ME310 has occurred in two primary
areas: other American universities and global academic
institutions. Table 2 summarizes several example
programs directly inspired by the ME310 course model.
Please note that this table does not represent an
exhaustive list; instead, it is intended to demonstrate a
representative diversity of courses. Several ME310
student alumni, who have later become course instructors
or faculty, have adapted ME310 entirely or integrated key
aspects of the pedagogy to enhance their respective
curricula. For example, Professor Natalie Jeremijenko
explained, “ME310 has been enormously influential on
me, and influenced a whole program I developed as
faculty in Yale Engineering, which influenced the ABET
accreditors. It has influenced the capstone projects of the
environmental studies program at NYU, and at UCSD,
and now I am modeling my new systems design masters’
degree on the 310 model” [27].
It is remarkable to witness how one course has had an
unusually large effect on the lives of multiple participants,
including roughly 3223 students over the years – many of
whom have returned to the course as project coaches or
teaching assistants – at Stanford University. One student
alumna acknowledged the hands-on experience she
gained in ME310 and reflected that, “In retrospect, now
that I’ve been out in the workforce, I see what a rare
environment and opportunity we had to work in at the
[ME310] loft.”
Course Name
Aalto University
2007 – current
Kon-41.4002 – Product Development Project
Loyola Marymount University
2006 – current
MECH/SELP/MBAH 673 – New Product Design
and Development
Luleå University of Technology
2001 – current
M7017T – SIRIUS: Creative Product Development
Massachusetts Institute of
1980 – 1987
2.731 – Advanced Engineering Design
2.732 – Advanced Design Projects
New York University
2006 – current
Systems Design Masters
VIS149 / ICAM130 – Feral Robotics
Reykjavik School of Art & Design
2008 – current
HFR0122H – HowStuffIsMade
Santa Clara University
1986 – current
ME194, ME195, ME196 – Advanced Design I-III
Univ. of California at San Diego
2005 – 2006
Vis 147B – Feral Robotics
University of Maryland
ENME 472 – Integrated Product & Process Dev.
University of St. Gallen (HSG)
2005 – current
7,004-2 – Design Thinking & Business Innovation
Yale University
2003 – 2004
E&AS 996 – SynThesis
ME 386 – Feral Robotics: IT in the Wild
Table 2. Sample academic programs inspired by Stanford’s ME310 course
Figure 3. Trend of long-term ME310 industry projects.
7.1 Research Limitations
While this study’s analysis may be illuminating, several
limitations in the data are important to recognize. All
survey and interview responses are self-reported, and
older memories are subject to the vagaries of time.
Moreover, the survey sample is not statistically significant,
nor does it accurately represent the entire population of
ME310. Lastly, the course bulletins were used as a proxy
to faculty beliefs about pedagogy and may not necessarily
reflect their true intentions, or what actually occurred
during the early years of the course.
7.2 Future Directions
This study offers just a start to understanding the
complete body of knowledge in ME310. It would be
interesting to compare the various eras described here
with broader engineering educational trends or economic
activity to see if any close linkages exist. In particular, one
lens is to examine the pattern of external drivers, such as
the changes in the course’s industry partners, on the
development of ME310. Another question is raised about
the changing nature of student development. Has the type
of engineering design student changed considerably, and
are there any corresponding shifts in student
expectations, skills, and backgrounds over the years?
Furthermore, extensive ME310 course archives, including
student reports and multimedia, provides another source
of considerable data that has yet been fully mined. ME310
has an amazing legacy built on 42 years at Stanford
University, helping to redefine the frontiers of engineering
design. My hope is that this Stanford course has
additional decades ahead to pioneer.
The authors would like to thank Dr. William Cockayne for
his thoughtful insights during revisions of the paper.
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... In the current educational practice, design thinking trainings can take many forms, ranging from 1-h highly structured workshops to several months of self-directed project work, and in some cases even years (Carleton and Leifer, 2009;Leifer and Steinert, 2011;Meinel and Krohn, 2022). All courses provide immersive project experiences that enable students to learn through first-hand experiences (Carleton and Leifer, 2009;Kolb, 2014). ...
... In the current educational practice, design thinking trainings can take many forms, ranging from 1-h highly structured workshops to several months of self-directed project work, and in some cases even years (Carleton and Leifer, 2009;Leifer and Steinert, 2011;Meinel and Krohn, 2022). All courses provide immersive project experiences that enable students to learn through first-hand experiences (Carleton and Leifer, 2009;Kolb, 2014). A typical educational set-up at the HPI D-School in Potsdam is to form multidisciplinary teams consisting of 5-6 students, who work on a given real-life challenge or design problem. ...
... Finally, collaboration is a crucial aspect to consider in design thinking (Carleton and Leifer, 2009;Plattner et al., 2009;Leifer and Steinert, 2011;Roth, 2015;Weinberg, 2015). It starts with acknowledging that many great creations are made possible by building on the works of previous generations (Dean et al., 2014;von Thienen et al., 2023b). ...
Full-text available
Design thinking is a well-established practical and educational approach to fostering high-level creativity and innovation, which has been refined since the 1950s with the participation of experts like Joy Paul Guilford and Abraham Maslow. Through real-world projects, trainees learn to optimize their creative outcomes by developing and practicing creative cognition and metacognition. This paper provides a holistic perspective on creativity, enabling the formulation of a comprehensive theoretical framework of creative metacognition. It focuses on the design thinking approach to creativity and explores the role of metacognition in four areas of creativity expertise: Products, Processes, People, and Places. The analysis includes task-outcome relationships (product metacognition), the monitoring of strategy effectiveness (process metacognition), an understanding of individual or group strengths and weaknesses (people metacognition), and an examination of the mutual impact between environments and creativity (place metacognition). It also reviews measures taken in design thinking education, including a distribution of cognition and metacognition, to support students in their development of creative mastery. On these grounds, we propose extended methods for measuring creative metacognition with the goal of enhancing comprehensive assessments of the phenomenon. Proposed methodological advancements include accuracy sub-scales, experimental tasks where examinees explore problem and solution spaces, combinations of naturalistic observations with capability testing, as well as physiological assessments as indirect measures of creative metacognition.
... In the course, teams of engineering graduate students and third-year undergraduate art students work together using a user-centred design approach. In the project, a partner company gives a theme, and teams aim to develop a product on the theme in five months, as done in the ME310 at Stanford University (Carleton & Leifer, 2009). Two of the nine interviewees not involved in this project were also involved in similar innovation projects as educators. ...
... Enseñar Design Thinking y pedir que lo apliquen es ofrecer a los estudiantes una experiencia práctica en materia de diseño que integra las habilidades analíticas con las creativas (Carleton & Leifer, 2009). ...
Se relata una experiencia de enseñanza de Design Thinking (DT) desarrollada en el contexto de la educación remota obligatoria. Se gestionó el proceso formativo utilizando herramientas TIC. Se trabajó con 23 estudiantes universitarios, el objetivo fue generar propuestas innovadoras, útiles en su contexto, propuestas centradas en las necesidades de los usuarios potenciales.Para valorar la experiencia se aplicó un cuestionario a los estudiantes. Los resultados muestran propuestas innovadoras que le ayudaron a desarrollar habilidades tecnológicas y competencias transversales.Se concluye que los estudiantes perciben favorablemente las estrategias didácticas implementadas, que se abrieron nuevas alternativas para su desarrollo personal y profesional.
... Consequently, project-based learning (PBL) is considered a powerful pedological framework. For example, ME310 is the PBL course conducted at Stanford, through which students acquire design thinking and engineering approaches (Carleton and Leifer 2009). In such a PBL course and product development in companies, it is necessary to have teams comprising people from diverse backgrounds to develop innovative products (Fleming 2004). ...
In project-based learning (PBL), a powerful pedological framework in design education, groups of students develop prototypes toward a given design topic. The groups consist of members of different disciplines to stimulate the creativity of design outcomes. However, the impact of disciplinary diversity on outcomes has not been sufficiently investigated, especially in long-term design projects. In this research, we clarified the impact by investigating intragroup conflicts among teams of different degrees of disciplinary diversities in a 1.5-month PBL course whose participants were three highly diverse groups and four low-diversity groups. The intragroup conflicts of each group were evaluated through questionnaires and interviews with group members during the three phases of the course over the periods of the projects. The final design outcomes were evaluated in terms of creativity. The questionnaire results showed that the highly diversified group had a significantly lower degree of interpersonal conflicts than the lower one in the middle phase of the course. It also suggests that a higher degree of conflict significantly leads to a higher quality of design outcomes. However, the degree of disciplinary diversity in a team does not directly have a significant impact on the creativity of design outcomes. The interview results imply that a lower degree of disciplinary diversity created a minority party, which was suppressed from expressing her opinions in the team.KeywordsInterdisciplinary collaborationProject-based learningConflict
... The first university moved to Tampere in 1960, and over the 1980s and 1990s, the UIC increasingly involved the local ICT (information communication technology) industry, supported by innovation policymaking, increasing openness and internationalisation of the Finnish economy. The global UIC experience (e.g., Stanford's ME310 [64]), together with local UIC initiatives around technology, design, and business in the 90s [65], also supported emerging practices. Around this time, OI was coined by Chesbrough [1]. ...
Full-text available
Sharing global knowledge and practices while adapting them to local contexts is a central concern in innovation and sustainable development. In this paper, we examined how intermediary organisations promoting innovation can foster and enable the diffusion and local adaptation of knowledge, practices of open innovation and collaboration between universities, firms and social innovators. We studied three longitudinal, interlinked cases from Finland, Mexico and Nicaragua, moving from highly industrialised to emerging-economy contexts. We traced how innovation intermediaries support developing cultures of collaboration and the value co-creation by diffusing knowledge, getting actors together, sharing activities and supporting the engagement between organisations. Through observation, interviews, participatory action and self-reflection, we proposed a stepwise generic model for diffusion and adaptation. We argued that all steps and roles must co-exist to achieve successful transfers, and noted the evolutionary nature of the process and the importance of aligning the interests and activities of the actors. We contributed to sustainable development goals through the global diffusion of open innovation knowledge within the collaboration of universities, firms and social innovators. We noted the limitations of addressing three cases, while proposing directions for further research on the capabilities of actors, collaboration practices and the co-creation of value by actors.
... Culture and global context are part of the fundamentals of design. This is reflected in the multicultural student composition of globalized design classrooms (Fruchter & Townsend, 2003;Daniels et al., 2010;Carleton & Leifer, 2009). We also see an increasing exchange of best practices, especially one-directionally from the USA to the rest of the world. ...
While people around the world constantly come up with ingenious ideas to solve problems, the expressions of their ingenuity and their underlying motivations and experiences may vary greatly across cultures. Currently, the role of culture is often overlooked in research and practice aimed at understanding and promoting creativity. The lack of understanding of cultural variations in creative processes hinders cross-cultural collaboration in problem-solving and innovation. We challenge the unexamined American perspectives of creativity through a systematic analysis of how ideas, policies, norms, practices, and individual tendencies around creative problem-solving are shaped in American and East Asian cultural contexts, using the culture cycle framework. We share initial findings from several pilot studies that challenge the popular view that only agentic change-makers are seen as creative problem solvers. In the context of design, designers are culturally shaped shapers who are motivated to solve problems in creative ways that resonate with their cultural values. Our research seeks to empower designers from non-Western societies. We urge design educators and practitioners to explicitly incorporate culturally varied ideas about creative problem-solving into their design processes. Our ultimate goal is to ground the theories and practices of design thinking in cultural contexts around the world.
This chapter summarizes four interview-based studies exploring the impact of two graduate-level courses in mechanical engineering at Stanford University on the innovative, entrepreneurial, and collaborative capacities of alumni and, in particular, the innovative career pathways of female graduates. The research findings are situated in two frameworks: (1) the social cognitive career theory (SCCT), a well-established model of how basic academic and career interests develop and how academic and career success is obtained, and (2) the academic-workplace relational (AWR) model, a new model developed to describe the many bidirectional relationships observed between university and workplace settings. Finally, the continuing research efforts identifying how project-based learning prepares individuals for career success and how project-based learning can be improved and strengthened are outlined.
In the last decade, new design-driven approaches, such as Design Thinking, Customer Discovery, and Lean Start-up, have gained popularity in entrepreneurship education (EE). However, their adoption has been characterised by confusion in understanding their theoretical underpinnings and the challenge of introducing these new methods into a pedagogic culture emphasising ideation over experience, emotional intelligence, and making. This article argues that the implementation of these new pedagogic approaches can be improved by better translating the principles of design-driven and artifact-centered entrepreneurship into pedagogical practices. To achieve this goal, a model for a pedagogy of making in EE is proposed along with theoretical and economic arguments based on recent advances in the debate on entrepreneurship as a design science, the growing importance of intangibles in the economy, and the challenges of artificial intelligence (AI) to the job market and student employability. The critical elements for successfully adopting such pedagogy and common misconceptions that can hinder its full deployment are outlined.
Design is an essential part of engineering practice and engineering education. As such, our research aims to examine the longer-term impact of engineering design education on graduates’ career paths and their practical utilization of design, post-graduation. We have focused our attention on several decades of alumni from two specific graduate course sequences, Project-Based Engineering Design Innovation & Development (ME310) and Smart Product Design (ME218), in order to gain a deeper understanding of how particular course elements and strategies are directly linked to what alumni retain and take away from their education. These course sequences represent two possible Mechanical Engineering depth areas that leverage a project-based learning approach to allow students to dive deeply into designing and building functional systems of some engineering complexity. In this chapter, we describe a multifaceted and mixed methods research effort that considers decades of graduates from ME310 and ME218 at Stanford University. The qualitative interviews and quantitative survey studies were designed to establish a deeper understanding of the longer-term impact of education on career plans and pathways (particularly as related to engineering innovation and entrepreneurship) and to also demonstrate the need to take a “bigger view” of graduates’ feedback on courses and on their formal education more generally. The analyses of this rich dataset are already bearing fruit by allowing us to identify specific curricular “features” that inspire innovative and entrepreneurial actions. We are also seeing how ME310 and ME218 graduates have built careers in a variety of professions, are scattered around the globe, and do not follow a singular career pathway or even dominant industry sector. Some stay highly technical throughout their post-graduate work, whereas others turn to less technical roles immediately after graduation.
Innovation is in great demand today, just like curricula for innovation training. At the Hasso Plattner Institute for Digital Engineering (HPI), design thinking has been used successfully over many years to train students and help them become capable innovators. Notably, this curriculum does not stand still but undergoes its own innovation processes. Innovation is change and good innovation education is itself open to planned as well as serendipitous developments. Neurodesign courses have been created at the HPI as an amendment to the design thinking curriculum. The approach encourages creative engineering in a promising field of innovation: at the intersection of digital engineering, neuroscience and design thinking. While such serendipitous discoveries of fruitful work areas are important for the development of innovation curricula, equally important is a good overview of competence domains that students need to practice to mature as innovators. In this chapter, we discuss a number of innovation competencies, which are now taught in complementary courses at the HPI. The classes distinguish themselves for instance by the role that subject-specific knowledge plays in the teaching, as from the area of digital engineering. In addition, inspiration for creative work is drawn from varying sources, such as empathy with user needs in some classes, while other classes focus more on the innovator’s own visions and passions. Overall, a collaborative spirit has proven itself invaluable for a positive teaching and learning experience. This collaboration is evident in both the individual courses, as well as in the fruitful development of the innovation curriculum as a whole. Through a generous interplay, marked by curiosity and mutual support across various disciplines, institutions and social roles, the best conditions emerge for innovation and innovation education.
ABSTRACT It is hypothesized that Product-Based-Learning (PBL) theory, methodology and technology are evolving in a manner that will make widespread PBL adoption and assessment financially feasible at all levels of Engineering education. It is asserted that student-created case material, a natural by-product of PBL curricula, effectively supports learning re-use and external validation of curriculum reform. ME210, "Team Based Product Design-Development with Corporate Partners", and the 210- web ( will be used to benchmark the issues. WHAT IS THE PROBLEM? The intellectual content and social activity of engineering product development are a constant source of surprise,
Teamology: The Construction and Organization of Effective Teams demonstrates how psychiatrist C. G. Jung's cognition theory, a cornerstone of modern personality typology, may be used to form and organize effective problem-solving teams through a novel quantitative transformation of numbers from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) psychological instrument directly on to Jung's eight cognitive modes. The resulting quantitative mode scores make obvious what is needed to make a good team. The product of sixteen years of studying student teams in engineering design project courses at Stanford University, Teamology: The Construction and Organization of Effective Teams is of value to educators in charge of engineering project courses, as well as to students and working professionals on project teams at all levels of engineering, architecture and business. The book is also useful for users of MBTI, and counselors interested in personal self-awareness and the development of interpersonal ability.
Product development knowledge cannot be embodied in a specific individual, a specific group of individuals, or a formal process. Those elements can only embody aspects of product development knowledge. Interaction of those elements is what assigns meaning to the aspects of knowledge and allows for their synthesis. Therefore, it can be said that product development knowledge emerges out of the combined interaction of the involved people and resources.
This multi-year study of undergraduate engineering education in the United States initiated questions about the alignment of engineering programs with the demands of current professional engineering practice. While describing engineering education from within the classroom and the lab, the report on the study offers new possibilities for teaching and learning. Although engineering education was found to be strong on imparting some kinds of knowledge, it is not as effective in preparing students to integrate their knowledge, skills, and identity as developing professionals. This lack of integration also weakens the transfer of the engineering perspective to other areas in which engineering graduates find employment. The authors advocate that engineers affect the world in profound ways, and advocate that the public, both national and global, has a significant stake in the preparation of engineers to design and manage an increasingly technological world. Engineering education that integrates knowledge, skill, and purpose through a consistent focus on preparation for professional practice is aligned with the demands of complex, interactive, and environmentally and socially responsible forms of practice. (Contains 2 figures.) ["Educating Engineers" is the third of a series of reports on professional education issued by The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's Preparation for the Professions Program, following "Educating Clergy" and "Educating Lawyers." Future reports will examine the preparation of nurses and physicians.]
The intended audience for this book is both researchers and practitioners. For the former, explications of the development of the research questions and methodologies, in addition to discussions of how certain lines of research, are provided. For the latter, information that can be used to inform curricular decisions and to guide practice are offered. Graduate students dealing with issues of teaching and learning seem appropriate consumers of this work. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)