Engineering design requires addressing open-ended design problems. Concept generation occurs during the early phases of a design process where engineers consider potential concepts to address the design problem and these concepts are further iterated and combined to create final designs. During concept generation, the goal is to generate a large number of diverse concepts and consider many possible solutions without evaluating feasibility. However, engineering students face challenges in concept generation as they often consider a limited number of concepts that are similar to existing products with minor modifications. Minimizing the diversity of concepts can limit the possibility of generating novel, innovative solutions. While studies have investigated concept generation practices, questions remain on why engineering students limit divergence and become fixated. We conducted think-aloud studies to analyze mechanical engineering students’ concept generation behaviors. The think-aloud method asks research participants to verbalize their thought processes during a task, allowing researchers to capture the details of their behaviors. Ten mechanical engineering students were recruited and asked to generate potential solutions for a design problem. We analyzed patterns in students’ concept generation practices to uncover why they limited divergent thinking. Participants narrowed the problem that restricted potential solutions, eliminated potential ideas due to financial costs, directed themselves away from potential solutions outside of their knowledge, and focused on criticizing existing solutions that led them to suggest concepts that were minor improvements on those existing solutions. By understanding specific behaviors that lead to reducing the quantity and diversity of possible solutions, the results of the study can support engineering instructors to provide scaffolding as they provide lessons on concept generation for their students.
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