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Abstraction Thresholds in Undergraduate Electrical Engineering Curricula

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Works in Progress: Curricula and Pathways

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Lance C. Perez University of Nebraska - Lincoln

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Dr. Lance C. Pérez received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia, and his M.S. and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame. He is currently a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he directs the Perceptual Systems Research Group. His research interests include information, video and signal processing, engineered healthcare and engineering education.

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Presentacion Rivera-Reyes University of Nebraska - Lincoln

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Presentacion Rivera-Reyes is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He formerly held a position of teaching assistant in the Engineering Education Department at Utah State University. He also held a position as Professor of Telecommunication Engineering at Technological University of Honduras teaching courses of Transmission System to senior students. He received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the National Autonomous University of Honduras. He has experience in the telecommunication industry where he worked as a Project Manager developing solutions of high-speed transmission systems for internet services providers and mobile service companies. He has trained engineers and technicians through formal courses, on-the-job training, and supervising on field. His research interest includes self-regulated learning, abstraction in problem solving, and troubleshooting problem solving in laboratory environments. His long-term goals include improving laboratory hands-on activities based on how students improve their metacognitive skills.

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A great deal of work has been done to study the types of problems posed to students in various disciplines and student problem solving skills within a specific undergraduate course. When examined across an entire undergraduate curriculum, the issue of problem solving is complicated by two factors. First, many adult development theories hold that a typical person’s higher-level reasoning skills, including the capacity for abstraction, are not innate until they have reached their mid-twenties or later. Second, the types of problems asked in disciplinary courses within a particular discipline evolve from those that require the understanding of a few principles or the mastery of a few approaches to more complex problems that require students to abstract the specific problem onto one or more generalized problems and then translate the techniques and results from the generalized problem back to the problem at hand. We hypothesize that students who are proficient at abstraction possess two capacities that are used when solving complex problems: 1) they are able to hold multiple abstractions in their minds and manipulate them, and 2) they apply rationales for determining which abstractions are valuable to make. We further hypothesize that a typical undergraduate electrical engineering curriculum has an abstraction threshold at which point a typical student’s innate capacity for abstraction is not matched to the complexity of the problems being posed and that this threshold impacts student performance.

Perez, L. C., & Rivera-Reyes, P. (2016, June), Abstraction Thresholds in Undergraduate Electrical Engineering Curricula Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26487

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