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Assessing Critical Thinking In Mechanics In Engineering Education

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Best Zone Paper Competition

Tagged Division

Council of Sections

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.235.1 - 11.235.15



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Paper Authors


Christopher Papadopoulos

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Chris Papadopoulos is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He earned his PhD in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from Cornell University. He is the recipient of the 2006 Ferdinand P. Beer & E. Russell Johnston, Jr., Outstanding New Mechanics Educator Award. His interests and expertise lie in nonlinear structural analysis, computational mechanics, mechanics education, and engineering ethics.

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Adeeb Rahman University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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Adeeb Rahman is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He earned his PhD in Engineering Mechanics from the University of Wisconsin-Madision. He is the coordinator for the mechanics courses. His interests and expertise lie in biomechanics, finite element analysis, and mechanics education.

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Josh Bostwick Cornell University

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Josh Bostwick is a first year PhD student in the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics at Cornell University where he intends to study dynamics or applied physics. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in May 2005 with a double major in Civil Engineering and Physics, and a minor in Mathematics. He received the Outstanding Student Achievement award for Academics from the College of Engineering and Applied Science at UWM during his senior year.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Assessing Critical Thinking in Mechanics in Engineering Education

Abstract. Typically, mechanics education in engineering schools focuses on communicating explicit content to students, but de-emphasizes the critical thought that underlies the discipline of mechanics. We give examples of the failure of students to apply basic principles of mechanics in solving problems. We develop assessment tools that measure critical thinking in student work, and how well mechanics textbooks engage students in critical analysis. Both tools focus on the treatment of three criteria that we judge to be fundamental, but that are commonly overlooked or undervalued: completeness of free body diagrams, consideration of physical dimension, and careful use of vectors, coordinates and sign conventions. Data collected from employing our assessment tools indicates that most of the time, students omit or misunderstand at least one critical idea when solving a problem, even when they obtain a correct answer. We also found that most of the textbooks surveyed exhibit at least one significant shortcoming pertaining to our criteria. Mechanics educators should vigorously emphasize fundamental aspects of mechanics, such as those that we suggest here, as a necessary (though insufficient) step to improve the ability of students to think critically and solve problems independently.

1. Introduction

Rooting Mechanics Education in Mechanics. Mechanics provides the educational foundation for nearly all branches of engineering, due to its dual role (1) to convey explicit content and subject matter (e.g. the behavior of mechanisms and structures), and (2) to develop analytical skills and rational thought (e.g. building equations, based on rational models, that describe physical phenomena). Our experience indicates that students and instructors in mechanics courses emphasize the explicit content, but often at the expense of developing analytical technique. This view echoes Schafersman, who, though not a mechanician, writes of the need to develop critical thinking in education:

Perhaps you can now see the problem. All education consists of transmitting to students two different things: (1) the subject matter or discipline content of the course ("what to think"), and (2) the correct way to understand and evaluate this subject matter ("how to think"). We do an excellent job of transmitting the content of our respective academic disciplines, but we often fail to teach students how to think effectively about this subject matter, that is, how to properly understand and evaluate it1.

While in the short run the narrower focus on content enables students to (sometimes) get answers to some problems fairly quickly, students often lack even a basic working knowledge of how to consistently apply principles of mechanics to approach general problems – even problems that require only technique that they have already learned. We proffer that such shortcomings often result from the failure to carefully address fundamentals of mechanics in mechanics pedagogy [1]. Such fundamentals include the completeness of free body diagrams, the consideration of physical dimension, and the careful definition and use of coordinates and sign conventions.

Papadopoulos, C., & Rahman, A., & Bostwick, J. (2006, June), Assessing Critical Thinking In Mechanics In Engineering Education Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--1379

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