Researching Reverse Engineering


Odesma Dalrymple

Since Fall 2007, Dalrymple has conducted a three-phased study of a form of learning known as reverse engineering, or DAA—disassemble/analyze/assemble. Students doing DAA activities learn by dismantling and reassembling a device. Dalrymple has worked with her advisers, Demetra Evangelou, assistant professor of engineering education, and David Sears, assistant professor of educational studies, as well as other faculty members, to compare DAA learning outcomes with those of conventional lab and lecture learning experiences.

Dalrymple says her research is replacing presumptions with data. “We have had a number of professors saying that DAA is really good in developing interest and claiming that it helps in achieving a number of learning outcomes,” she says. “And people didn’t question it too much because intuitively you think, ‘Yes, that makes sense; it’s engineering—of course, taking things apart should be useful to engineering.’ The big problem is that they didn’t have a lot of empirical evidence to support the claims they were making. With this study, we begin to apply scholarly approaches to substantiate why we do what we do, so that we can be very systematic about how we go about educating engineers.”
Dalrymple has collected data from three separate but similar DAA activities involving first-year students of Engineering 126, “Engineering Problem Solving and Computer Tools.” In each instance, students took apart a one-time-use camera to either learn about its design requirements, diagnose defects that would result in poor photographs, and/or develop design improvement ideas in order to add variable shutter speed to its functionality.
The difference between DAA and a conventional lab class, Dalrymple says, is that the DAA activity is not dictated by a set of instructions like those typically used in lab exercises.
“It’s student-guided discovery learning that occurs through the manipulation of objects, as opposed to a lab setting where activities are very prescribed and students are told to do step one, step two and so on,” she says. “As part of a lab on designing for the environment, students also took apart a product and probed their own observations to the extent they deemed necessary for understanding how this particular device operates and is designed to reduces its impact on the environment.”
Dalrymple’s results verified that DAA yielded the intended learning outcomes more often than did conventional teaching. “Significantly more of the students who learned about the interconnectedness of the camera components from the DAA activity were able to describe reasonable redesign solutions than those that learned about the camera’s design in the lecture,” she says.
Dalrymple also surveyed the students using the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory, a peer-reviewed measurement device that assesses participants’ subjective experience with a specific activity. The survey results showed that the activity was more motivating than a lecture. In addition, when asked to comment, students were consistently positive: “I found this activity intriguing. I would like to do more activities like this” … “I liked taking the camera apart because I felt that I had a better understanding of what everything did” … “Reverse engineering is a good key to learning” … “This is the most interesting lab yet! It was hands-on, and therefore much more interactive and interesting.”
Dalrymple says the results were significant enough that her DAA activity is under consideration for inclusion in the First-Year Engineering course curriculum.

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