VIP meets Design Thinking at Tuskegee University to develop student design, entrepreneurial and communication skills
By Mandoye Ndoye and Firas Akasheh, Tuskegee University
To support workforce development and increase the number of underrepresented minorities in the aerospace industry, the NASA-funded Additive Manufacturing-Enabled Modular Drone initiative at Tuskegee University proposes a learning and mentoring environment that combines characteristics of the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) model and IBM Design Thinking concepts to develop students’ design, entrepreneurial and communication skills.
Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing , has received a great deal of interest from different industries, academia, and the Makerspace movement due to its demonstrated potential to transform the way we fabricate prototypes. A main advantage of AM is the ability for students and/or makers to easily create complex parts. The VIP model is a learning framework that operates in a research and development context. In VIP projects, students participate in research and/or design activities for several semesters. This continuity favors technical depth and disciplinary breadth by enabling the completion of projects that are of significant benefit to the student learning experience. The long-term, highly mentored, and technically challenging nature of projects provides undergraduates with an educational experience that fosters the creation of innovative ideas and the development of advanced skills. It has been shown that the VIP model presents many benefits such as improvement of student learning outcomes in both disciplinary and professional skills, better understanding of the innovation and research process, realistic team experience, opportunity to learn a varied set of skills, deeper practical experience in field of study, and development of professional skills: communication, leadership, and management.
Students collaborating on tasks of the AM-enabled modular drone design project
Using the VIP model, we formed a multidisciplinary team of aerospace, electrical, and mechanical undergraduate engineering students. Students were given specific roles and responsibilities that fall into three main areas of the drone development process: (1) structural/aerodynamic design, (2) electronics systems integration and (3) manufacturing. Each of these sub-teams is assigned to a faculty mentor with the most experience in the associated area. For example, an electrical/computer engineering faculty is the lead-mentor for students working on electronics and system integration while a mechanical engineering faculty supervises the students in the manufacturing sub-team. Nevertheless, to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration all the team members (students and faculty advisors) meet once a week for updates and cross-advising. Faculty-mentors provide the minimal requisite direction and guidance to the students such that the undergraduate researchers have enough independence to conceptualize, realize, test, and iterate on their various design solutions. To teach through experience that a key quality of problem solvers is the ability to learn from failure, students were given the latitude needed to find for themselves what works and what does not (even if foreseen by the faculty mentors).
Current iteration of modular drone - Designed, 3D-printed, assembled and tested by students
This long-term project typically involves six students during a given semester: i.e., on average two students per sub-team. Since an important objective of our initiative is for students to develop firsthand engineering design and research skills, participating students work in the laboratory (whenever possible) and maintain a 10 hour-a-week work schedule during the academic year. The students' work schedules in the laboratory are designed such that there are overlaps; thus, there are many opportunities for students working on various parts of the projects to communicate and share ideas. The Microsoft Teams platform is used to facilitate constant/daily communication and content sharing among students and between students and advisors. Another goal of the project is to promote life-long learning and exploration of new areas. Because lower-level (and even upper-level) students have no previous experience in requisite practical skills like electrical/electronic systems of drones or moderately complex CAD design, the faculty identify and provide access to onramp tutorials. For example, for drone electronics and design, the faculty mentors guided new participating students through an online drone course, which covers the basics and then leads then through the complete assembly, calibration, and flying of a quadcopter drone using a complete DIY package, which includes the structure, power train and electronic parts of drone. Through this approach, students learn through scaffolding and then transfer their knowledge when they are working on the in-house modular drone.
The overall assignment of the participating students is to design, build and fly a modular drone with the key functional requirements of easy and quick replacement of parts (for repair or function switching), configurable geometry and the ability to be customized. An additional requirement is that the drone be designed for and fabricated by AM to the extent possible to take advantage of the ability of AM to promote innovative product development. In contrast to fixed drone platforms available commercially, the development of a multifunctional modular drone using AM presents a challenge but also an opportunity for design and manufacturing innovation. To take a principled approach to tackling the main design challenges, students are encouraged to utilize the Design Thinking methodology which has been shown to be quite effective in providing “outside-the-box” solutions to challenging problems . Although many versions of Design Thinking exist, in this initiative we focused on IBM Design Thinking. This version appears easier to grasp, and a free online practitioner course  is available to quickly get students started on understanding the fundamental principles and how they can be readily applied to enable better design solutions.
By combining VIP characteristics and Design Thinking concepts, this long-term AM-enabled drone design and manufacturing project and the associated learning and mentoring environment has enabled active and enthusiastic participation from students. In learning by doing, participating students have developed valuable design, entrepreneurial and communication skills, which has undoubtedly improved their preparedness for the industry and/or graduate school.
 Kantaros, Antreas, et al. "3D printing: Making an innovative technology widely accessible through makerspaces and outsourced services." Materials Today: Proceedings 49 (2022): 2712-2723.
 Cross, Nigel. Design thinking: Understanding how designers think and work. Berg, 2011.