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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2011
DOI: 10.5062/F4NP22CD

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A Capstone Wiki Knowledge Base: A Case Study of an Online Tool Designed to Promote Life-Long Learning through Engineering Literature Research

James B. Clarke
Engineering Librarian
Brill Science Library
Miami University Libraries

James R. Coyle
Assistant Professor of Marketing/Interactive Media Studies
Farmer School of Business

Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

Copyright 2011, James B. Clarke and James R. Coyle. Used with permission.


This article reports the results of a case study in which an experimental wiki knowledge base was designed, developed, and tested by the Brill Science Library at Miami University for an undergraduate engineering senior capstone project. The wiki knowledge base was created to determine if the science library could enhance the engineering literature research experience of a senior capstone class in an innovative manner. In doing so a precedent was set for supporting all of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences accreditation efforts to promote the life-long learning outcome. The results of a usability test are also reported. Wiki development is discussed, test results are analyzed, and design modification needs are identified. User feedback indicates the library-generated online research tool offers a dynamic and practical means for engineering librarians to promote their collections and the value of life-long learning. Implications for technology librarians and related research are discussed.


Engineering educators must achieve the demanding objective of preparing undergraduate students to become professionals within just four years of full-time study. Faculty are compelled to focus their respective curricula on the learning of basic technical knowledge. As a consequence, engineering literature research is at risk of always playing a secondary role in the undergraduate learning experience (Chanson 2007; Oxnam 2003). One study indicates that undergraduate students fail to appreciate the importance of using library resources for design project research (Nerz & Bullard 2006.) Despite the many efforts academic librarians have made to integrate information literacy content into the curriculum, the challenge of developing strong literature research skills among undergraduate engineering students remains a substantial struggle.

Information literacy is defined by the American Library Association as "a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information (ALA 1989.) Preparing young engineers with strong information literacy skills remains vital for their acquiring the best scholarly literature and technical data required for optimal product development. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) recognized and supported this general need by revising program outcomes in 2000 to include "the need for and an ability to engage in life-long learning." This outcome is identified within ABET as Criterion 3, section i (Engineering Accreditation Commission 2010). If students are to be prepared to keep studying as professional engineers their undergraduate education must go beyond instructor presentations of subject matter (Milne & Thomas 2008).

As both subject research experts and information literacy instructors, university engineering librarians are in a unique position to assist engineering faculty in their efforts to achieve the ABET Criterion 3i outcome. The engineering literature research skills they impart to undergraduate students should be invaluable for all design projects and serve as the cornerstone of life-long learning. Young engineers ought to graduate with strong library skills they can leverage for product development research throughout their careers. The aim of this project is to develop and test an innovative tool, a wiki knowledge base, that engineering librarians may use to further promote life-long learning practices within the educational experience of undergraduate students.

Literature Review

Despite the philosophical connection that exists between information literacy and life-long learning, engineering educators have not inherently regarded library support as a decisive means of fulfilling the ABET Criterion 3i outcome. As an example, Felder and Brent (2003) identify potential solutions for all ABET Criterion 3 outcomes primarily from an engineering curriculum standpoint. They endorse problem-based learning and cooperative learning assignments as effective opportunities for meeting the life-long learning outcome. In both types of assignments, student groups work in teams to achieve a common goal. Felder and Brent (2003) argue these two types of assignments separate student learning from dependence on their instructors and class lectures. Engineering 101 classes, laboratory projects, design projects, and capstone projects all serve as a potential means of meeting the ABET Criterion 3i outcome.

Oxnam (2003) indicated a collaborative opportunity exists for librarians and engineering professors to fulfill all of the ABET Criterion 3 outcomes, and identified how the ABET outcomes correlate with the Association of College and Research Libraries' (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Specifically, the five ACRL standards all support the ABET Criterion 3i life-long learning outcome. She concluded that librarians and professors should collaborate to integrate information literacy within course content via independent library research. Such collaboration offers potential improvements in preparing undergraduate engineers as researchers, and the partnership also provides an opportunity for librarians to proactively support engineering departments as they earn and maintain ABET accreditation.

Oxnam's view on collaboration between librarians and engineering professors is insightful, but the need for such an educational partnership has been identified by other library scholars. Erdman (1991) professed the need for librarians to collaborate with professors regarding undergraduate engineering design assignments long before ABET established Criterion 3i. Poland (1991) expressed a similar need and also indicated that undergraduate engineering students experience anxiety when attempting to use library resources because they lack strong information literacy skills. Leckie and Fullerton (1999) indicated that, although engineering professors endorse the value of information literacy skills for their students, many acknowledge that students probably avoid library work until their third or four year of study when they start design projects. Maynard (1990) indicated that faculty attitudes towards library instruction lack consistency. Some engineering faculty members accept librarians as active contributors in the educational process while others regard them as passive supporters. The need for assertive initiatives led by librarians to develop strong educational partnerships is universally recognized among science and technology librarians. Atkinson, Peachy, and Woodall (2006) endorse a proactive role for liaison librarians as learning facilitators.

Librarians have also addressed the ABET Criterion 3i life-long learning outcome as a means of developing stronger educational partnerships with engineering faculty. Milne and Thomas (2008) argue that engineering programs cannot generate holistic engineers without blending information literacy learning into an engineering curriculum. They contend that isolated library instruction sessions are not effective enough by themselves. Instead, they endorse solutions such as lecture development collaboration and online tutorial deployment. Trussell (2004) argues for a similar level of proactive support from engineering librarians and encourages online innovations as a means of advanced collaboration with engineering faculty. Engineering librarians ought to pursue innovative and collaborative online projects to discover best practices for achieving the ABET Criterion 3i life-long learning outcomes.

Wikis, web-based collaboration tools, have been previously applied to undergraduate engineering courses and studied by both librarians and professors as online educational tools. A number of scholars have endorsed wikis as educational collaboration tools, (Engstom & Jewett 2005; Frumkin 2005; Parker & Chao 2007; Wagner 2004). Hamer (2006), Boutin and Lax (2010), Ler (2008), and Heys (2007) stressed that wiki-enabled collaboration improves the extent of communication, teamwork, and fairness for engineering students engaged in group projects. Al-Yahya (2009) surveyed a class of software engineering students who used a wiki as a part of the design process and determined that online collaboration tools can improve student teamwork with enhanced participation, communication, progress tracking, and other factors. Ras and Rech (2009) conducted an experiment with an engineering capstone class by testing a control group that worked without a wiki tool and an experimental group that did use one. The written test results indicated the students working with the wiki tool learned more than double the amount of information in comparison with the control group. Bhatt, Chandra, and Denick (2008) have acknowledged that engineering students have the potential to learn more with wikis and other Web 2.0 technologies because of direct access to relevant online library resources. Saleh and McKinnon (2009) collaborated as a librarian/professor team to develop a wiki for a mine engineering capstone course, and class observations indicated the students learned more than normally expected. Most of the studies performed by engineering librarians and professors indicate that wikis can have a positive impact on capstone learning experiences. Our case study builds on this solid foundation by exploring the possibility that a wiki can be designed to specifically improve the engineering literature research conducted by students for capstone design projects.


At Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Brill Science Library routinely pursues a dynamic collaboration with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to enhance the undergraduate learning experience. By connecting information literacy education directly to the ABET accreditation Criterion 3i initiatives of all four SEAS departments, the Brill Science Library intends to maximize the value of the engineering collection for promoting life-long learning skills. The Library is developing a strategy to support the ABET Criterion 3i life-long learning outcome with three tools that will be deployed on an incremental basis. Once engineering faculty volunteers are recruited, three tools can be developed and deployed in the form of online information literacy portals: course guides, subject guides, and wiki knowledge bases. The course guides and subject guides will be developed for all SEAS departments, and may be used for any SEAS courses. The wikis, on the other hand, are intended to be built and deployed by the Brill Science Library for capstone courses that require specialized information for design projects.

The concept for a library-generated wiki evolved from observing both positive and negative student behaviors during several class sessions of a senior capstone course. Class observations indicated the students perform the design process in an organized and systematic manner. Data produced by the student team was stored within a shared drive accessible within lab desk top computers. The regular use of journal articles, technical reports, or handbooks for the decision making process was not a consistent practice of the team. The team operated in relative isolation by spending several hours of the day within the confines of the SEAS mechanical engineering lab. Physical library visits for research purposes were rare among the student team members despite the extremely close proximity of the Brill Library to the SEAS building. Consequently, the development of a wiki that students could use to freely explore relevant information together appeared to be an opportunity worth exploring.

The senior capstone course being observed, Mechanical and Materials Engineering MME 448/449, is a two-semester senior design project focused on the annual, off-road racing competition known as Baja SAE, sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE 2009). The class typically involves a group of less than ten seniors who lead teams, such as the drive train team, and the suspension team, of underclassmen volunteers in the process of designing, building, and racing an off-road vehicle against other university teams from around the world. The routine participation of underclassmen volunteers makes this particular capstone distinctive for SEAS because senior participants start their race car design project with as much as six semesters of prior experience while seniors in other capstone classes begin their design project for the first time in the fall semester of their final year. Two SEAS faculty members advise the students as they pursue the project over the course of two semesters. Based on a semester of class observations during the prior academic year, the Brill Science Library decided to develop an online race car engineering hub, a wiki knowledge base that students could access during the following fall semester for research purposes while they work together without having to leave the lab facility.

Wiki Knowledge Base Prototype

The two senior course instructors agreed to serve as faculty volunteers by allowing the Brill Science Library to pursue the development of an online race car engineering research tool, but they recommended the prototype should also serve as a portal for information created by the student team. Consequently, a collaborative online technology was required for students to contribute data easily to the hub. The Brill Science Library decided to develop a wiki knowledge base as a practical opportunity because a number of scholars have endorsed wikis as educational collaboration tools (Engstom & Jewett 2005; Frumkin 2005; Hawker, Weber, Starenko, & Parry-Hill 2008; Parker & Chao 2007; Racicot & Pezeshki 2006; Silverstein 2009; Wagner 2004). Academic Blackboard Suite serves as a standard online communication platform across Miami University, and the professors of MME 448/449 already used Blackboard to share class information with students. The Blackboard wiki tool provided a logical choice for generating a prototype for the class. In regard to design requirements, the wiki needed to serve three key services for the student researchers: to house specialized secondary source information gathered from the engineering collection, to provide links to external online information resources, and to store student-generated data.

The Brill Science Library developed the wiki prototype during the summer of 2009 after receiving agreement from the SEAS faculty volunteers. Content development involved race car engineering research mostly related to off-road racing vehicles. The Blackboard wiki tool provided password protection so that articles acquired from literature databases, such as IEEE Explore, could be housed within the wiki without copyright violations. The database content navigation menu was organized alphabetically by subject to reflect the organization of student teams. As an example, a powertrain subject category was developed to house information most relevant to the powertrain team. The database organized information gathered from literature databases, mostly in the form of PDF files, as "Secondary Powertrain" information while student-generated information was organized under the subject, "Primary Powertrain."

The same organizational approach was taken for subjects such as chassis, electronics, frame, handling, and suspension. In addition to the secondary source information generated from the literature databases, race car engineering books were selected, listed within the wiki, and then placed on reserve within the SEAS mechanical engineering lab. The student-generated data was extracted from the SEAS share drive and posted within the wiki under primary subject categories such as "Primary Powertrain." The wiki listed the subjects alphabetically as clickable buttons within a side-navigation frame. When a user clicked the subject buttons, new screens with related folders and files became available for the user to explore. Abstracts were included to help the user evaluate the potential value of the secondary materials to address reference questions.

After reviewing the wiki with the MME 448/449 instructors at the end of the summer session, a librarian demonstrated the knowledge base to the student racing team during the second week of September, an early time within the fall semester. The students discovered how to access the wiki via Blackboard, how to navigate through the content, and how to upload new information to it. Following the demonstration, the student team was provided with an opportunity to use the wiki without interruption. A screen shot of the homepage can be found in Figure 1. Access to a few engineering literature databases may be viewed in Figure 2, chassis-related scholarly literature files are displayed in Figure 3, and student-generated suspension data folders and files are displayed in Figure 4.

Usability Test

Usability tests serve as a practical method of evaluating human-computer interaction, and they offer a means of empirical performance measurement for wiki developers. Manzari and Trinidad-Christensen (2006) assert that the assessment of educational tool performance with user input provides an advantage for prototype redesign to achieve optimal user success. Nielsen (1993), Virzi (1990) and Rubin (1994) stress that usability tests performed with as few as five user subjects can reveal 80% of site design errors. Conducting a usability test on the first online tool iteration provided an insightful way to make design modifications for increased learning outcomes during the second semester and in following academic years.

An evaluation of the wiki's potential impact on the student learning experience during the senior capstone class involved a usability study during the first semester of deployment. A month after deploying the wiki prototype, the two MME 448/449 instructors and six senior level student team members engaged in a usability test to evaluate ease of use, overall navigation, and initial impressions. Such an evaluation offered potential insight for design improvements and maximum customer satisfaction. We used Morae software by Techsmith to monitor and measure the testing. Subjects were tested on an individual basis, and each test was conducted during an average time period of fifteen minutes per subject. The testing experience involved a four-part process. First, the subjects were given an overview of the Morae software. Second, we demonstrated a think-aloud protocol that we then used to capture the thoughts and feelings of subjects as they explored the web site to identify specific information. The think-aloud protocol is a standard usability testing technique that allows designers to uncover many design problems (Jorgensen 1989; Monk et al. 1993). Third, after the demonstration, the subjects were asked to log on to the wiki knowledge base via their Blackboard accounts, and then to describe their first impressions of the user interface to indicate whether or not the tool made sense to them. Fourth, subjects completed seven information retrieval tasks. These tasks can be found in Table 1. The subjects received oral instructions for one task at a time, and spoke out loud as they conducted the tasks to articulate their stream of consciousness during the process. In addition to the subject's vocal input, the Morae software recorded the user's interaction with the wiki knowledge base interface. During instances when subjects failed to achieve a task, the solution was demonstrated to them before the next task was explained to them.

Table 1 - List of tasks

#1 You decide to verify your team's decisions about the vehicle's firewall. Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to identify a specific race car engineering book reserved for the team's use in the engineering lab. When you find a potentially good book title, recite the title out loud in a clear voice.

#2 You are tasked with working on the vehicle handling of the new race car design. Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to review a patent for an off road vehicle's steering system. When you discover the patent, view the pdf file and recite the title and the patent number of the patent.

#3 You have been given an assignment that involves comparing the weight break down of the new race car with earlier team vehicles. Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to identify the 08-09 vehicle weight break down located within an excel file. When you find and open a file, recite the name of the file and the total weight of the total Baja weight on out loud in a clear voice.

#4 You have been given an assignment to verify the maximum vehicle dimensions in the 2010 Baja SAE Rules. Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to access the 2010 rules and identify maximum vehicle dimensions within section 2.

#5 You have been given an assignment of exploring whether or not active suspension system information might be useful for the new race car. Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to discover an article about active suspension design.

#6 You are given the task of retrieving the sponsor list of the 05/06 racing team. Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to access the sponsor list.

#7 You need more information about vehicle brakes than is currently provided in the Knowledge Base. Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to access the Compendex database. When you are viewing the interface for Compendex, start a search with a broad approach by searching on the term "race car" in quotations.

Task example #5 involves one of the tasks in which the test subject needed to access externally produced information:

You have been given an assignment of exploring whether or not active suspension system information might be useful for the new race car. Use the Knowledge Base to discover an article about active suspension design. When you have such an article on the screen, recite the name of the article.

Task example #3 involves accessing team-generated information:

You have been given an assignment that involves comparing the weight break down of the new race car with earlier team vehicles. Use the Knowledge Base to identify the 08-09 vehicle weight break down located within an excel file. When you find and open a file, recite the name of the file and the total weight.

When the student subjects completed the seven tasks, they indicated their agreement or disagreement with the following statements by circling a number from 1 to 10, where 1 indicated strongest disagreement with the statement and 10 indicated strongest agreement:

  1. The wiki knowledge base is easy for me to use for finding relevant information related to my senior capstone course.
  2. The wiki knowledge base contains relevant information for my senior capstone course.
  3. The wiki knowledge base test impresses me with the value of the Science Libraries engineering collection.

The instructor subjects, on the other hand, were asked the following three open-ended questions to capture the details of their thoughts regarding the wiki knowledge base:

  1. In what ways does the wiki Knowledge Base potentially support the Life-Long Learning outcome specified in ABET Criterion 3i?
  2. In what ways do you think the wiki knowledge base can potentially serve as an educational asset for the student racing team?
  3. Do you think wiki knowledge bases can be beneficial to other senior capstone courses?

After the subject testing concluded, the videos and the survey data were analyzed to identify common features of the user experience.

Results and Discussion

All student and instructor subjects were able to log on to the wiki via the Blackboard course page. Once the main interface appeared on the screen, all of the student and instructor subjects were able to describe the wiki knowledge base without confusion. As the subjects performed the tasks, they all indicated an understanding of the site as being an information resource they could use to store and access information. Five of the six student subjects indicated the list of button links in the navigation frame was too long. Three of the six subjects indicated the prefix abbreviations for the terms "primary" and "secondary" were confusing and that they could not remember the significance of those two terms from the initial presentation. The two instructor subjects also indicated the list of labeled buttons in the navigation frame was too long and confusing.

Despite the critical feedback regarding the navigation frame, most of the student subjects could complete five of the seven tasks without any assistance. The "primary" and "secondary" categories created confusion at least once for each student as they completed the seven tasks. Errors typically resulted when users failed to click on the appropriate subject button at the start of the task. A simple example involves a user who attempted to perform the following task, "Use the Wiki Knowledge Base to discover an article about active suspension design." When the user started to perform the task, the person clicked on the "Primary Suspension" button within the navigation frame. As a consequence, the user began browsing through lab-generated data rather than journal articles and became confused. No specific task, however, seemed the most confusing for the student subjects. When errors did occur and the students could not complete the tasks, the solution was demonstrated for them before moving on. The two instructors shared a similar task performance experience by completing five of the seven tasks without the need of assistance. When task errors did occur, the errors resulted from initial choices made by the instructors as they began their tasks. Similar to the students, the instructors did not share a common struggle with any one specific task.

When the students finished the seven tasks, they all strongly agreed with the three survey statements. Means for answers to the survey statements can be found in Table 2.

Table 2: Mean responses to student survey statements

Survey statements

Arithmetic Mean (level of agreement)

  1. The wiki knowledge base is easy for me to use for finding relevant information related to my senior capstone course.


  1. The wiki knowledge base contains relevant information for my senior capstone course.


  1. The wiki knowledge base test impresses me with the value of the Science Libraries engineering collection.


The students reacted to the wiki knowledge base positively, but they identified a need for more simple navigation. When the two instructors finished the seven tasks, they were first asked the question, "In what ways do you think the wiki knowledge base can potentially serve as an educational asset for the student racing team?" Both of them stressed the value of having a single online repository for research and information related to the class. They stressed that the wiki has the advantage of being accessible remotely while the previous use of a shared drive limited the time and location of information access. Then the instructors were asked, "In what ways do you think the wiki knowledge base supports ABET Criterion 3i?" Both instructors agreed that the central access point of the literature databases provided students with an opportunity to explore topics for the capstone beyond the information learned in the lab. One of the instructors noted the importance of making certain students understand the external information can be readily accessed after the students graduate and begin their careers. The instructor expressed a concern that, without a clear understanding, the students may perceive the externally- produced content of the wiki as being information they can access without university resources after graduation. Lastly, the two instructors were asked the question, "Do you think wiki knowledge bases can be beneficial to other senior capstone courses?" Both instructors agreed that other library-produced wikis could be useful as central information repositories and as a hub for useful literature databases.


The usability test indicated an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the wiki knowledge base prototype from both the students and Instructors of MME 448/449. As in the study conducted by Ras and Rech (2009), students recognized the value of the new online information resource and appreciated access to a single space where separate student teams could collect their work in one location. And as in the Bhatt, Denick, Chandra (2008) study, students recognized the advantage of using an online hub for access to library information. The two instructors in our study acknowledged the value of a library-generated wiki knowledge base as being a valuable tool to promote the ABET life-long learning outcome. Like the Silverstein (2009) study, instructors believed that one of the greatest advantages of the wiki involved the ability for students to access the information while they were off campus. Despite the positive reactions, design errors were clearly identified by the usability testing, and the prototype will be improved based on the recommendations of the usability test subjects. These design changes will include a more concise list of subjects within the navigation frame, a change in navigation terminology, and a clearer indication of which information resources of the engineering collection are literature databases. Once these changes are made, the site will be re-deployed during the spring semester, and more usability tests will be conducted over time.


This usability test effectively demonstrates the wiki prototype as a progressive tool for engineering librarians to increase the effectiveness of their involvement in senior capstone classes. Wiki knowledge bases developed and deployed by librarians that are then managed by students for capstone courses can showcase the breadth of information resources within an engineering collection for specific design projects. Furthermore, wikis have the potential to increase information literacy skills among students, and will maximize their success as professionals in product development research. Engineering faculty ought to continue collaborating with engineering librarians to incorporate wiki knowledge bases into their broader strategies for promoting engineering literature research as a life-long learning skill.

Future research

A new usability test will measure the impact of the wiki knowledge base on the capstone class and to gather further modification recommendations for maximizing increased learning outcomes for future MME 448/449 senior capstone classes. New iterations of the wiki knowledge base will be developed and deployed for other senior capstone classes.

It is recommended that university engineering librarians should follow this precedent by creating similar online tools to promote their respective collections for literature research . Further development of wiki knowledge bases for a variety of senior capstone projects will gauge the versatility of this online tool and identify practical enhancements for design and content. Capstone design projects that involve seniors who have no direct prior experience with the objective, unlike the Baja SAE project with undergraduate volunteers, would increase the ability of educators to assess the full impact of wiki knowledge bases on the learning experience. To do this, professors and students will need to be surveyed about how wiki knowledge bases affect specific aspects of the engineering literature research process, and about the particular aspects of wiki knowledge bases that professors and students find especially useful in facilitating such research. In general, researchers should also continue to explore ways in which wiki knowledge bases may support all ABET outcomes.


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