Dandan Xu headshot

Fields like engineering are often viewed as rigorous and rigid—consisting of complex equations, detailed diagrams, and structured protocols. The ‘seriousness’ of the topic can leave instructors, and students, feeling as though there is little room for fun in the learning process (Kennedy et al., 2018).

Traditionally, senior engineering students are required to deliver final capstone presentations, in which student groups provide in-depth technical details on their design project. Each semester, Dr. Dandan Xu, lecturer in the Department of Engineering, watched as senior students delivered lengthy, technically-accurate presentations—to mostly empty rooms. Their presentations, while factually sound, lacked the dynamism that leads to audience engagement and participation, and potential peer-to-peer learning. Moreover, presenters were lacking in practicing some essential soft-skills, such as distilling complex engineering problems and communicating them effectively for a general audience.  

The Rapid-Fire Design Tournament 

To break the monotony of dry presentations, a game-based approach can add interaction among students through competition—leading to experiences that are both educational and enjoyable (Higley & Marianno, 2001; Rojas & Valcke, 2016).

Inspired by the popular show Shark Tank, which involves a fast-paced, high-stakes environment, where people have an idea that they ‘pitch’ to potential funders, Dr. Xu developed a “Rapid Fire Design Tournament.”  Students are put into teams, where they play the role of budding entrepreneurs. The rest of the class, and invited faculty, play the role of potential investors who may ask questions to each group after their pitch. 

Rules and Structure of the Game
  • Each round (a standard 50-min lecture) includes 4 – 5 teams presenting
  • Each team has 5 minutes to present their pitch. They are allowed to use any supporting objects to help with their talk. 
  • The audience has 5 minutes to ask questions. 
  • Students engage in live voting to decide which projects advance to the next round
    • Voting can be facilitated by an anonymous online tool such as Mentimeter, which also allows results to be hidden until the end.

The winning team of each round becomes the finalist to compete for the championship of the tournament.

Impact on Engagement & Learning Outcomes

As compared to the traditional presentation format, the Shark-Tank game-style:  

  • enhanced learning outcomes: students not only design solutions but also honed their ability to communicate effectively with diverse audiences.
  • increased attendance and active participation during the Q&A sessions.
  • encouraged process design and effective communication.

Because the time-constrained format means students cannot elaborate on the technical specifics, we have two recommendations to ensure learning outcomes are met:

  • Require students to submit a detailed written report before and after the presentations
  • Complete the grading according to the rubrics yourself–but you can give awards based on student votes
Tips for Facilitating a Successful Tournament
  • Use lecture time prior to the tournament to explain the rules and to help students prepare a pitch style presentation
  • Supply a grading rubric that specifies the required content and communicates the expectations
  • Require that teams submit slides one day before the tournament starts and do not allow any changes once the tournament starts. 
  • Post the tournament schedule right after the due date of the slides 

The new approach has been a hit among students. The competitive yet fun atmosphere, complemented by peer learning, has been both "engaging" and "fun". By marrying the seriousness of engineering with the thrill of competition, we can foster an environment that's not just about equations but about passion, creativity, and real-world problem-solving.


Higley, K. A., & Marianno, C. M. (2001). Making engineering education fun. Journal of Engineering Education, 90(1), 105-107.

Kennedy, B., Hefferon, M., & Funk, C. (2018, January 17). Half of Americans think young people don’t pursue stem because it is too hard. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2018/01/17/half-of-americans-think-young-people-dont-pursue-stem-because-it-is-too-hard/

Ortiz Rojas, M. E., Chiluiza, K., & Valcke, M. (2016). Gamification in higher education and stem: A systematic review of literature. In 8th International Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies (EDULEARN) (pp. 6548-6558). Iated-int Assoc Technology Education A& Development.

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