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  ICBTT2004 Technology & Society Division, JSME

Merits and Demerits of Introductory Subjects on Mechanical Engineering Education for Freshmen in Kyushu University


While a reform of the university education conscious of JABEE examination progresses in the universities in Japan, an enforcement of the introductory subject for freshmen to the faculty of engineering is going on. This paper reports on an introductory design subject entitled "A Guide to Engineering", which has been offered the freshmen of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Kyushu University for three years. The background under which this subject was planed to set up is described at the beginning. Next, the outline of the subject and proceeding of the class are shown with taking the author's class as an example. After being shown the educational effects and the problems with the results of questionnaire survey obtained from both the students and the professors, merits and demerits to offer this type of introductory subject to the freshmen are discussed. Finally, he conclusion that introducing this type of introductory subject to the education program for mechanical engineering is very effective to improve achievement of the students in Japanese universities is conducted.

Key Words: Engineering Education, Introductory Subject, Design Subject, Improvement of Class.

1. Introduction

Japan is now in a storm of the reform of university education. Engineering education, on which Japanese government has been putting a high value as one of the practical sciences, is also going in the storm.
Before the World War II, the university education in Japan produced a few excellent engineers at seven 'imperial' universities. After WWII, the policy changed; it has produced many good engineers. This change of the policy, 'the popularization of the university education', brought a sharp increase of the number of the universities, the faculties, and the departments for engineering education. Today, we have more than 200 faculties in Japanese universities. Although the popularization has been often criticized, the fact that high growth of Japanese economy was brought by the rise of industries, is the evidence that the educational policy, i.e. 'making great ordinary men', was not wrong. Especially, for mechanical engineering this policy made technology transfer between engineers easy.
However, in 1980s, the economic and industrial growth of Japan began to be blamed by Western countries as a term 'Japan's free ride' on science and technology. The blame has eventually arrived at institutions of education, especially at universities. Figure 1 shows ranking of the result of an international math test (International Mathematics Olympiad(1)) that has been examining to high school students. Although this ranking was only obtained from averaging the individual marks of the participants by countries, this result is often used as one of the evidence that Japanese students are never excellent, and are not well educated. These situations made the educational policy of Japanese universities change from that based on the absorption of foreign informatio, so called 'catch-up-type education', to that based on the reinforcement of creative activity of the students.

Fig. 1 Change in Ranking by International Mathematics Olympiad (Unofficial).

There was another motivation for the reform of the university education: a provision for deterioration of quality of the students. One of the causes is the decrease in population of students accompanied by the decrease in the national population. Figure 2 shows the population of the students in Japan, who are eighteen years old, and the ratio of the students who enter universities.(2)(3) If this tendency continues, the entering ratio will soon exceed 50%! We, teaching staff members of engineering faculties in Japan, have to make an effort to solve the above mentioned problems.

Fig. 2 Change in Population of Eighteen-year-old People and Consequent Increase of Entering Ratio.

This paper reports on an introductory design subject entitled "A Guide to Engineering", which was set up for freshmen in 2000 as a part of the revised curriculum in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Kyushu University. Merits and Demerits of offering this type of introductory subject are discussed.

2. Background

Kyushu University, established as one of the old imperial universities in 1911, is now in the process of reinforcing the education for the graduate school. It means that the undergraduate course has to be revised at the same time, because it is an important bridge between high school's education and graduate school's one. The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering for undergraduate course was established in 1999 by reorganization of four old departments, and has sixty-six (full and associate) professors teaching the professional subjects. (There are many other professors teaching the common subjects for the general education.)
Many universities in Japan are planning to revise their curriculum so that the Japan Accreditation Board for Engineering Education (JABEE) allows their curriculum to be that for the qualification of the Professional Engineers as the internationally recognized profession. One of the reasons for setting up the subject "A Guide to Engineering" was consciousness of the JABEE examination.
The JABEE requires the design subject. The design subject is generally defined that each student is given an each theme on engineering, (or one sometimes find it by oneself,) and solves it by planing, practice, experiment, machining, etc., with an assistance of instructors. (4)
A design subject entitled "Design and Draft for Mechanical Engineering", which teaches how to design machines under the given conditions and how to present the designed idea by drafting, has been offered by most universities in Japan. However, the JABEE conceives that the engineering education of Japanese universities is chiefly based on lecture-oriented class, i.e. the feeding-of-knowledge (one way) type, which retards the growth of student's creativity. It seems that the JABEE does not take the "Design and Draft" as the true design subject. (From another aspect, the graduation study, which is offered in almost all the universities in Japan, is considered one of such subjects; the student performs to solve academic or practical problems related to engineering under being supervised by professors. As of now the author does not know if the graduation study is recognized as the design subject by the JABEE.)
However in Kyushu University, the design subjects which satisfy the JABEE's requirement on the design subject, had been already offered as a title "Creative Design", for the students in the third year. If the reason had come only from the JABEE's requirements, our department would not have set up "A Guide to Engineering". There was another situation surrounding the university education to set up this subject.
The feature of Japanese students is that almost all the freshmen are eighteen or nineteen years old, or the age when they graduate from high school. It means that the students who have experienced a full time working are seldom. There is a Japanese philosophy that a student is considered a 'trainee', who should not go out into the world until he finishes training as a student. A student going to university with working at a company is often respected as a 'self-supported student'. On the other hand, a student entering university after earning his educational expense at a company and resigning from it is not so respected, on the contrary, sometimes blamed. It is difficult to change our philosophy because it is closely related to the culture. Perhaps the situation may not be different from other eastern countries than Japan.
However, it is very serious problem if such a philosophy diminishes the university students' enthusiasm for studying. Many Japanese students grow without doing anything but the preparation for the entrance examination to university since they were born. During their growth, they are required to study hard without the sense of purpose in exchange for the strong dependency on the surrounding people, for example the financial support from their parents. After achieving their 'goal', they have to find a new goal. However, it is very difficult for such students because they do not have such abilities. Some of them lose the value of studying and become absent from classes. This is called "May disease" or "May's depression". (The school year in Japan starts in April). Most serious problem is that such a situation affects the achievement of many other students. It was needed to take care of them for not cure but prevention against this situation.
Meanwhile, what was the situation on the professor side? They could not know directly what the freshmen had studied and not studied. In spite of the decrease in the amount of freshmen's knowledge resulted from the recent change in the educational policy at elementary and high schools, many professors had not been able to change their educational styles. It was needed that the professors should touch with the real image of the freshmen to improve their classes. Our department has been offering lecture-oriented introductory subject "Introduction to Mechanical Engineering" for more than ten years, but the effects were insufficient.
The introductory design subject "A Guide to Engineering" was born to solve these problems: it was not only the reaction to the JABEE examination but also the connection tool between the freshmen and the professors.

3. Outline of the Subject

The program of this subject was planed by the management staff organized by two full professors and two associate professors. The author has been one of the staff members since the planing. The purpose of this subject is to know the importance of mechanical and aerospace engineering by trying to solve a theme given by the professor; the goal is to have interest in such fields as the students' major. (It may sound strange without the description already mentioned.)
The educational policies of this subject are:
(a)All the professors, who teach the professional subjects in the department, teach this program.
(b)A few students are assigned each professor as a supervisor.
(c)Each professor directly teaches the students two (school) hours (180 minutes) a day per a week. He must not leave the students to other staff like teaching assistants or graduate students.
(d)The professor makes an effort to let the students touch the practical things.
(e)The professor must not give a theme that is extremely specialized or too difficult for the freshman
(f)The students are required to make a presentation on what they did, and to publish a collected report as a printed matter.
(g)The achievement of each student is evaluated from the student's intensities but from his or her accomplishment.

The subject is offered at the first semester of the first school year with two credits. The professors are required in advance to present a few themes so that the students can choose one in the listed themes. Three or four students are assigned to each professor according to the themes chosen by them. Since each theme has different capacity for the students, an assignment of the student to the theme is adjusted by themselves at the first class hour of the subject. After that, the individual class for each professor begins.
A standard process of the class is as follows.
(1)Mutual introduction between the professor and the students, explaining the plan by the professor, and adjusting the schedule and the theme (, if necessary). [1 to 2 (school) hours]
(2)Work in accordance with the schedule. [7 to 8 hours]
(3)Consideration of the results and preparation for presentation. [2 hours]
(4)Presentation of he results, and submission of the report.[1 hour]

The total hour of the class are 12 or 13 hours, but the above mentioned process may change with characteristics of the theme. Examples of the title of theme are listed in Table 1 and a scene of the class hours is shown in Figure 3.

Table 1 Examples of titles of theme. (Names of professors in the figure are imaginary but imply their working field).
Name of professor
Title of theme
Dr. Fluid dynamicsLet's play with wind! (for 3 students)
Dr. Numerical EngineeringMeasurement of thermal convection in a bathtub. (for 1)
Dr. I. TribologyLet's make a speed gun! (for 2)
Dr. Safety EngineeringCheck your creativity by making tangrams! (for 4)
Dr. A. MachiningInvestigation of the mechanism of an automobile's transmission. (for 2)
Dr. Tissue EngineeringApproaching the mystery of mechanical characteristics of tendons. (for 3)
Dr. Fluid MachineryHearing sound of the whispering sand. (for 1)
Dr. Heat TransferLet's experience the micro gravity experiments. (for 4)
Dr. J. TribologyHow to make a delicious omelet. (for 1)
Dr. AeronauticsMaking a powder rocket model. (for 4)
Dr. B. Heat TransferLet's dismantle a washing machine! (for 4)

Fig. 3 A scene of the class.

Here, the author introduces his first year's case as an example. Three students were assigned to themes, entitled "Let's make an electric stove", "Let's make a heat pipe" and "Let's investigate the energy consumption of vehicles", respectively.
The first and second themes were to study the working principle of an appliance or a device and to design and manufacture it. The student of the first theme knew what the electric stove was, but did not know how to make it with his knowledge he had obtained so far, for example, the Ohm's law. The student of the second theme made a great effort to fill the pipe with the working fluid (water). Usually a vacuum pump is used to evacuate air in the pipe before filling the working fluid, but unfortunately, such a pump was not available. With some advice by the supervisor (the author), he eventually hit on an idea. After filling the pipe with the working fluid and heating to boil the fluid, he purged the air by the boiling vapor of the working fluid, and then sealed. The third theme was to study the energy consumption rate of various vehicles under various driving conditions. The student estimated it when people move from the city of Fukuoka to the city of Saga (, 70km apart from the city of Fukuoka). The student realized that the energy-wasting vehicle depends on the prerequisite conditions.
They realized the most important thing is how to apply their knowledge. All the themes were closely related to the author's working field and had no serious difficulties to proceed the class.
At the last class hour, the presentation by the students is performed. The students are divided into nine groups for the presentation. Each student is required to present his or her accomplishments to the audience with transparencies within five minutes. The audience for each group consists of about thirty people in totals (the students and their supervising professors).
The achievement of the student is evaluated based on how hard he or she worked not how much he or she got. Unlike other subjects, a grade of A (excellent) is marked if the student attended the every class, worked hard and made a good presentation and a report, because it is recognized that he attained the goal of this subject.

4. Discussions

In this chapter, merits and demerits to set up this type of subject are discussed from the educational effects and the problems, which has appeared since this subject started in 2000. Results of the questionnaire survey of this year are now available for both the students (Fig.4) and the professors (Fig.5), respectively. Details of the results are referred to Ref.(5).

Fig. 4 Results of Questionnaire to the Students.

Fig. 5 Results of Questionnaire to the Professors.

Since the first students who completed this subject have not graduated yet, the educational effects are evaluated from these results of this questionnaire survey and the evaluation for the other subjects. It is clear from QS1 and QS2 in Figure 4 that most of the students feel that this subject was useful. This result agreed with that of the author's interview with the students who had just finished the subject.
It is not shown in the figures, but attitudes of the students who completed this subject are obviously better in another subject the author is teaching, compared with the old students who were not required this subject. The former marked 20% higher achievement than the later for the other class of the author's. This difference of the achievement is considered significant in the sense of the stimulation of the eagerness of studying.
From the professors' point of view, many affirmative answers that this subject was effective were obtained from the result of the free-description-type questionnaire (not listed in this paper).
In addition, the effects on the provision for "May's depression" are considered significant, because the number of professors to whom students confide their troubles increased. (See QS3.) Not only the author but also many professors who taught this subject think that this subject brought the educational effects as expected. It is concluded that 'the introductory design subject' can give certain merits for Japanese freshmen.
On the other hand, major three problems occurred. At first, the difficulty of the theme strongly varied with the professor's individuality. The cause was that most of the professor had not been accustomed to such a new type of subject. However, there were many themes which no one would be able to proceed without special knowledge, which would be given after finishing the professional education program. The result QP1 in Figure 4 shows 36% of the professor felt that teaching to the freshmen was more difficult. Most of professors who answered so, thought that it was due to a lack of the knowledge which the freshmen should have. The author thinks that it was due to the difficulty of the theme. Actually, it is not always that such difficult themes are unpopular with the students, but giving too difficult themes may diminish the education effect of this subject.
Next problem is that the 'investment-effect ratio' is not so high. As mentioned above, their attitudes to the classes and quality of the reports were improved obviously. However, the professors' efforts to get these effects are too much. Some of the questionnaires of both the students and the professors pointed out the students' overload for getting two credits by this subject, especially pointed out the hardness of the preparation for the presentation at the last class. Many students and professors had to have additional meetings on the preparation. It is due to a lack of the education for the presentation and communication in recent Japan. Until three decades ago the abilities of reading, writing and calculating were emphasized for Japanese education, but recent public education has put a slight on these abilities as a result of the excessive emphasis on the creativity and originality. (All these abilities can be compatible, or balanced.) The author's department has been educating in the graduation study at the fourth year. No one deny the effect of the early education on the presentation. However, It is too short for 13 times of the classes to fulfill all of the 'demand'. The goal of this subject should be modified and spread over the other subjects.
At last, surprisingly, many students did not have simple knowledge and skills, which should have been learned by the graduation from high school, or should be the common sense. There were students who did not know basic knowledge on physics, chemistry, mathematics and social studies, and who could not use tools like a screwdriver, a nipper, a circuit tester, etc. (They passed the 'difficult' entrance examination!) This situation sometimes made the students impossible to work without a suitable modification of the process. Otherwise much helps by the teaching assistants and technicians will be needed. (See QP3 in Figure 4.)
More or less, the lack of such knowledge and skills cannot be compensated completely by the additional education in these classes. The social tone about the education in Japan is that the cause of a lack of the creativity is the 'feeding-of-knowledge type' education, and the solution is to introduce the design subjects and the general study subjects. However, this tone tends to sound that knowledge is put a slight on, and it is easily obtainable by the On-the-Job Training. The author never denies the importance of the OJT. However, the author is afraid that the lack of the basic knowledge and skills, or the lack of education on them in the classes of school, will diminish the educational effects on the design subjects.
Summary, it is concluded that demerits introducing this type of introductory subject were not found except for the 'investment-effect ratio' problem, which should be solved by the professors' efforts. If anything, wrong understanding to the knowledge and skills is the most serious problem to improve the engineering education.

5. Postscripts

After setting up the introductory design subject "A Guide to Engineering", it seems that the attitudes of the students are markedly improved. However, it is hard to judge whether it only comes from "A Guide to Engineering" or not. The true evaluation for this subject will be waited for until they graduate from the university.
However, the author believes that the lack of a sense of purpose for studying will be dissolved by this type of introductory subject, and that offering Japanese students such a subject and the graduation study complementarily will raise their creativity and originality.


  1. Homepage of the International Mathematical Olympiad, 2002,
  2. White Paper Database, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2001, http://wwwwp.mext.go.jp/index_e.html
  3. Homepage of the National Institute of Population and Social Security, Research,2002, http://www.ipss.go.jp/
  4. Homepage of JEEP,2001, http://www.eng.tohoku.ac.jp/jeep/eep.home/ (In Japanese)
  5. Results of the Questionnaire of the Subject "A Guide to Engineering", 2002,