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Open-Ended Design Writing Prompts

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This set of OWL resources aims to help engineering instructors and TAs create and assess a variety of short, low-overhead writing exercises for use in engineering courses. The primary focus here is on “writing to learn” assignments, which leverage writing to improve students’ conceptual understanding of technical concepts.

Writing exercises can be used in engineering courses to promote the deeper learning of technical material and build students’ writing skills. Writing in engineering courses gives students practice in articulating engineering concepts to different audiences and in engaging with technical communication genres. However, engineering instructors and TAs often struggle to incorporate writing into engineering classes due to a variety of challenges, including class size and the amount of time it takes to grade writing assignments. Additionally, the teaching of writing is an entire discipline of study with its own theories and practices that may not be accessible to engineering educators.

Description: For this assignment, students must design a device or solution associated with a stated design objective. The writing component of the assignment lies in the explanation of the design, often in the form of a design manual or report.

When useful: Design prompts challenge students to both be creative as they invent their own designs and engage with complex technical content as they explain their designs.

Audience considerations: Instructors or TAs may ask students to envision their audience as fellow engineers who must either build or work with their design.

Assignment length: Can range from one page to several pages

Connection to “writing to learn”: If students are writing to other engineers, they will have to engage with technical terminology and learn how to use it within technical communication genres intended for experts in the field.


  • Fluid mechanics: Design a water conveyance system (pumps, fittings, and pipe) that will transfer water from Lake Harner to the nearby community of Bellemor, subject to the below constraints. Provide detailed specifications of your design, including product numbers, performance specifications, and estimated cost.
  • Statics: Design a viewing platform that hangs over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Include in your design the number of people (total weight) that can be on the platform and how far it hangs over the edge.
  • Thermodynamics: Design a heater for an old classroom space. Within your design, clearly state the assumed size of the room, the desired temperature within the room, and the average temperatures assumed outside. Assume that the room loses 0.1 BTU per hour per square foot of wall space for every 1 degree temperature difference inside the room versus outside.
  • Circuits: Specify components (resistors and capacitor) for an op-amp multivibrator circuit with a target frequency of 1Khz. Make sure you explain and justify your selection of components given that the proposed device is intended for hearing test applications and will be mass produced.