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A Grand Challenge-based Framework for Contextual Learning in Engineering: Impact on Student Outcomes and Motivation

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Student Motivation and Faculty Development

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.48.1 - 26.48.17



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Paper Authors


Lisa Huettel Duke University

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Dr. Lisa G. Huettel is a professor of the practice in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University where she also serves as associate chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the department. She received a B.S. in Engineering Science from Harvard University and earned her M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Duke University. Her research interests are focused on engineering education, curriculum and laboratory development, and applications of statistical signal processing.

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Michael R. Gustafson II Duke University

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Dr. Michael R. Gustafson II is an Associate Professor of the Practice of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke University. He received a B.S.E. in 1993 from Duke University, majoring in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. He continued on at Duke to earn his M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. His primary focus is on undergraduate curriculum and laboratory development, and he is responsible for the first-year Computational Methods in Engineering course required for all engineering students at Duke University.

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Joseph C. Nadeau P.E. Duke University

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Dr. Joseph C. Nadeau is an associate professor of the practice in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University where he also serves as Director of Undergraduate Studies and ABET Coordinator for the department. He received a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Lehigh University, a S.M. in Civil Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of mechanics, structural design, and composite materials. He is a registered Professional Engineer.

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David Schaad Duke University

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David Schaad has over seventeen years of design and engineering experience as a consulting engineer working for various firms including: Parsons Engineering Science, Appian Consulting Engineers and Marshall Miller and Associates.

As part of his experience, Dr. Schaad has: designed waste water treatment systems to address industrial and domestic waste streams; developed designs of storm water control structures and strategies to address water quality and quantity; designed fluid transport systems to replace water supplies impacted by anthropogenic sources; designed fuel transport and delivery systems; developed designs for commercial and residential development; prepared land use plans; developed designs to protect against potential flood hazards; designed and developed plans and specifications for fluid handling systems, waste mitigation alternatives and remedial actions for RCRA and CERCLA sites including active industrial facilities and inactive disposal sites (including NPL sites); conducted feasibility studies by evaluating and analyzing the economic and engineering considerations of multiple design alternatives; obtained extensive experience with innovative remedial techniques (including groundwater extraction and treatment, air sparging, soil vapor extraction, and bioventing).

Current research focuses on sustainable engineering, community development, water and wastewater treatment design, stormwater retention/detention and treatment design, hazardous waste remediation, urban hydrology, constructed wetland and stream restoration design, ecological stabilization, sustainable engineering in land development, water resources, water and wastewater treatment.

He is also the faculty advisor for Duke Engineers for International Development and has led DukeEngage experiences every year since the inception of the program. He has facilitated and/or led trips to Indonesia, Uganda, Kenya, Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Peru. Representative projects he has worked on include: building a 4800sf Infant and Maternal Health Clinic, constructing a 100ft long vehicular bridge over a seasonally flooded river, and installing a 3km long waterline. He was an inaugural member of the Faculty Leadership Council (FLC) of EWB-USA and is a registered professional engineer in 21 states.

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Michael M Barger Duke University


Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia Michigan State University

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Dr. Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia is an associate professor of Educational Psychology in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education at Michigan State University. She received her Ph.D. in Education and Psychology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on the development of achievement motivation in educational settings and the interplay among motivation, emotions, and learning, especially in STEM fields.

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A Grand Challenge-based Framework for Contextual Learning in Engineering: Impact on Student Outcomes and MotivationExposure to meaningful, societally relevant applications can increase student motivation andimprove learning outcomes. Here, we describe assessment results that evaluate a pedagogicalframework based on the NAE Grand Challenges, in which specific engineering concepts areembedded in a societal problem (e.g., “reverse-engineering the brain”) that requires students todefine problems and apply course content to those problems. Assessment data were acquiredfrom 957 undergraduate engineering students, including students participating in the interventionin an introductory class (N = 564) and advanced classes (N = 56) and control students inintroductory (N = 273) and advanced classes (N = 64). Using a multivariate analysis of variance,we tested the hypotheses that the Engineering Grand Challenge Framework (EGCF) influencedstudents’ self-assessments of specific student outcomes (ABET Criterion 3), particularly thoserelated to understanding engineering in a societal/contemporary context. We also evaluatedstudent motivation using well-validated scales drawn from the psychological literature and astructural equation model linking motivation to course outcomes.The initial multivariate analysis revealed a significant effect of intervention upon studentoutcome responses considered as a group [F(11, 943) = 13.302, p < .001], and a significantinteraction with class level [F(11, 943) = 3.240, p < .001]. Significant item-specific interactionswere observed for ABET criteria associated with societal context (ABET h), life-long learning(ABET i), and knowledge of contemporary issues (ABET j; all ps ≤ 0.01); in each case, theinteraction revealed a greater effect of the EGCF on upper-level students’ self-assessments onthese criteria. Analysis of student motivation via structural equation modeling revealed apotential role for motivation in shaping course outcomes: for advanced students, the EGCF wasassociated with significant increases in situational interest (a measure of motivation) that in turnpredicted higher course grades.We conclude that EGCF – and, by extension, frameworks that connect engineering content tosocietal issues – holds promise for shaping student engagement with technical content in amanner directly relevant for national goals for engineering education (i.e., ABET criteria).Moreover, educational research can identify the circumstances in which a particular frameworkmay be most effective (e.g., upper-level courses) and thus guide the allocation of instructorpriorities and resources.

Huettel, L., & Gustafson, M. R., & Nadeau, J. C., & Schaad, D., & Barger, M. M., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2015, June), A Grand Challenge-based Framework for Contextual Learning in Engineering: Impact on Student Outcomes and Motivation Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23389

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