Date of Award


Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Civil and Environmental Engineering


Susan Finger


Students working on engineering design project teams face many challenges including information management. The students collaborate among themselves, share design knowledge, and negotiate with each other, faculty members and the client, in order to create engineered artifacts. This process often involves reuse of prior knowledge and the creation of new knowledge within the context of the problem. Although some of the work is done individually, a major portion is accomplished through team interactions, either in meetings with the project team or with subsets of the team. Students communicate in face-to-face meetings, on the phone, via email, in chat sessions and with text messages; and they exchange text, images, web links, equations, and technical drawings. However, as the project proceeds, locating the right piece of information from the multiple sources becomes an increasingly difficult task. Prior studies have shown that students often have different perceptions of the project and their contribution in it (Laurillard 1979). Externalizing the shared vision as the project evolves can have advantages for the students. Since most of the knowledge creation by students occurs without the instructor present, students often deviate from the project’s stated objective. Instructors intend to assess student learning outcomes, but have more ready access to product outcomes. Given this constraint, the final grade is often based on the quality of the product and on the self-reported functioning of the team. Even in cases where the evidence of student collaboration process is accessible through discussion forums and e-mail threads, making sense of this data is difficult due to a lack of practical, analytical tools to aggregate the information. Towards a Framework to Support Engineering Design Student Projects vi The first research question of this thesis addresses the problem of information management in engineering design projects. The students’ design deliberations, as externalized in their discussion threads and through the documents they create or reference, can be visualized by mining the textual evidence they produce as natural part of their collaboration process. By using computational linguistic techniques and machine learning, all the documents and student discussion threads are aggregated, and a sample concept-map based graphical representation is created that can be used to navigate the project corpus. This approach is referred to as DesignWebs. DesignWebs can be viewed as an assemblage of related noun phrases reveal the current state of the project and the underlying structure of the design. DesignWebs assist as navigation aids in contextualizing and viewing project archives by structuring the design information as graphs of related entities. The second research question presents noun phrases as a surrogate measure for design team dynamics. This question builds on prior research about using noun phrases as objective measure for measuring design team performance (Mabogunje 1997), and uses them for exploring how the design vocabulary of student teams expands and contracts during a design project. The expansion and contraction reflect the students brainstorming about different design alternatives for the project and finalizing certain design solutions respectively. This question also shows that tracking the noun phrases as they are introduced by one team and shared across team boundaries can reveal insights about whether the teams are successfully collaborating. Tracking the design vocabulary over time shows how the design vocabulary related to a team’s assigned tasks keeps on getting refined as the project progresses, reflecting the domain expertise gained by the Towards a Framework to Support Engineering Design Student Projects vii team. The shared vocabulary between teams also mirrors the project’s work-flow, as it is represented in the artifact’s system architecture diagram. Finally this question shows how instructors can see the changes in a team’s design knowledge by monitoring its DesignWebs, as they are created at different milestones during the project. The third research question presents DesignWebs as a research framework that facilitates the validation of prior research findings about the functioning and assessment of design project teams by obviating the tedious data pre-processing steps. Three diverse research studies are examined to demonstrate the wide applicability of DesignWebs as a platform: the first examines whether using the semantic coherence of student communications in team-based project courses can act as an indicator of the progress of the design process (Song et al. 2003); the second examines whether applying metrics on the “communication artifacts” generated by computer supported collaborative tools can provide insights into the design process that created them (Dutoit 1996); the third explores various individual and group work processes that when made more explicit to instructors can assist them in carrying out the assessment processes (Gweon 2008). This research contributes to supporting engineering design student projects by presenting a framework that organizes and evaluates a variety of potential metrics and design assessment measures based on the text products in a given project corpus. It also presents an interface that summarizes the team’s online communications and documentation to track the emergence of the shared solution and extent of team collaboration, using noun phrases as a surrogate measure. Finally, this research presents a research test bed that brings together a number of research hypotheses Towards a Framework to Support Engineering Design Student Projects viii related to collaborative design projects by demonstrating that they can complement the instructors’ understanding of how teams are working.