Just as design is a fundamental part of engineering work, prototyping is an essential part of the design process. For many engineering design courses, students must develop a final prototype as part of the course requirements. And in industry, engineers build multiple prototypes when creating a product for market. Although prototyping is core to design education, there is a lack of research on understanding the perceptions and usage of prototypes from both students and professionals. Without understanding students’ perceptions of prototypes, we cannot adequately train them. Likewise, without knowing how professionals use prototypes, we cannot translate these practices back to design education.
This paper reports on the pilot study comparing the perceptions of prototypes between mechanical engineering students and professional engineers. The findings indicate that the interpretation of the term “prototype” varies between students and professionals. Specifically, these mechanical engineering students have a more narrow perception and identify prototypes as only having a few key elements, namely for building and testing functionality and feasibility of physical elements in a product. Comparatively, professionals have a broad perception of prototypes. They identify a wider range of attributes, including prototypes as a communication tool, an aid in making decisions, and a way to learn about unknowns throughout the design process.
Many instructors in design education are cognizant of the importance of prototyping. However, we believe that students require explicit instruction about key concepts. It is not enough to just tell students to “prototype.” As design educators, we must be aware of the various roles of prototypes, and teach these concepts to students. We provide some immediate recommendations for practice, including a list of ten principles of prototypes to create similar mental models between students.