Finding new ways to vote: First-Year Engineering students pursue innovative solutions

Author: Teresa Walker, Engineering Education
Event Date: January 11, 2022
Last semester, students in Professor Inez Hua's section of First-Year Engineering ENGR 13100 participated in an engineering design challenge centered on voting technology and improving United States voter participation. Most students in the class were not old enough to vote in any previous election, so this unique assignment provided the opportunity to practice the engineering design process while also learning about the voting process.

Students gather around a poster that exhibits an engineering design project for voting technology.

For context, all sections of ENGR 13100: Transforming Ideas to Innovation I in the First-Year Engineering program follow the same curriculum structure with an engineering design project to be completed in teams. Over the years, our faculty have partnered with engineers at Kimberly-Clark Corp, Amazon, and some local businesses including Imagination Station for the final design project in ENGR 13100. So why voting technology for Professor Hua? “I’ve been teaching ENGR 13100 for five years and there are lots of interesting engineering design projects that we have done. I just felt like the students needed something that felt real. The elections over the past ten years have become contentious and controversial, and I wanted the students to dig into the problem,” said Professor Hua. 

Part of the motivation was to get the students to think about their role in civic engagement, which Purdue has demonstrated in recent years by providing civic engagement opportunities and embed civic requirements. “I wanted students to think about their role and what they can personally do. I also think that a lot of times engineering is associated with a specific product [by discipline], which is great, but election systems have a role for every engineer. Every engineer and engineering thinking, whatever design they come up with, the way they think about it is important. Personally, I just think people need to vote. So, it was also a personal passion – people need to vote; why aren’t more people voting?” 

The Challenge

Student teams were challenged to develop a device, system, or process for an individual to cast a vote in the state of Indiana in the United States. Dr. Hua, a professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering and a regular instructor in ENGR 13100, created the engineering design challenge with the State of Indiana as the client and guidelines and requirements for students to consider. “Your client wants creative engineers to collect data and apply analytical skills to develop evidence-based proposals for better ways of voting. They are requesting proposals for new approaches that will be effective and will be aligned with current legal and economic requirements.” Current requirements are in accordance with the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Voting System Standards, Testing and Certification, stating that voting technology is voluntary in the United States. 

In addition, criteria and constraints were provided as a rubric for the teams’ final solutions. For example, the votes had to be secure, confidential, and tamper-proof while also accurately recording a person’s selection for each voting choice. The price tag and budget were also in consideration and that the solution could not increase the cost of voting for any stakeholder. Lastly, the solution needed to be implemented with existing technology, materials, and infrastructure as well as maintainable. 

Students engaged in informed design while also following the course’s learning objectives involving team code of cooperation, team roles, deadlines, communication, and project management skills.  In addition to teaming exercises, the project focused on problem scoping and making evidence-based decisions.

The Final Solutions

Following the criteria and constraints established by Professor Hua, teams worked for several weeks on their final solutions. The designs included a wide range of solutions with several offering a physical prototype to demonstrate. Mobilizing voting was a popular idea with several iterations – a bus and van fleets, drive-through voting stations, and voting apps, while others addressed the voting process with one team offering same-day registration to vote. 

In terms of grading and evaluating the projects for engineering design, Professor Hua looked for evidence that the solutions were going to work. “For example, mobile voting. Many of the students proposed taking the voting to people who have limited ability due to disabilities or limited transportation. I asked them what evidence they had that that is a limiting factor. And they went out and found great things. They found differential voting rates between people who were disabled and people who are not. They actually found a number for that. So it was great to see them move from a solution that they just felt would be cool and neat to a solution that they actually had a reason to propose.”


When students were asked if they plan to vote in the next election, there was a resounding confirmation that they will not only vote but volunteer if possible. Further, “the students worked hard, and I also believe they have become much more informed about the U.S. elections, and the role engineers and engineering thinking in the election system,” said Professor Hua.

Professor Hua wants students to take a specific tool with them from First-Year engineering into their disciplines. “I want them to take with them a tool called the way Weighted Decision Matrix. Some of the students included it on their posters. Essentially it looks like how you assign a score but there’s so much underneath that to get to the score, which is engineering thinking.” A past student provided feedback years later, as she used the same matrix and engineering thinking to help her decide on an internship. So write that one down, First-Years!