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Assessing Engineering Student Attitudes about Cognition Due to Project-Based Curriculum

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.234.1 - 22.234.9

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Paper Authors


Donald Plumlee Boise State University

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Dr. Plumlee is certified as a Professional Engineer in the state of Idaho. He has spent the last ten years establishing the Ceramic MEMS laboratory at Boise State University. Dr. Plumlee is involved in numerous projects developing micro-electro-mechanical devices in LTCC including an Ion Mobility Spectrometer and microfluidic/chemical micro-propulsion devices funded by NASA.
Prior to arriving at Boise State University, Dr. Plumlee worked for Lockheed Martin Astronautics as a Mechanical Designer on structural airframe components for several aerospace vehicles. He developed and improved manufacturing processes for the Atlas/Centaur rocket program, managed the production implementation of the J-2 rocket program, and created the designs for structural/propulsion/electrical systems in both the Atlas/Centaur and J-2 programs. Dr. Plumlee also worked at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center as an engineer in the Propulsion Laboratory.
In practicing the engineering profession as a conduit for preparing future generations of engineers, he wants to provide students with both a technical competency and the ability to understand and respect the trust that is invested in us by society. As an educator, he guides future engineers through a learning process that develops a strong technical foundation and the ability to independently cultivate further technical competencies. He is particularly interested in advocating for project-oriented engineering education. He and a research team at Boise State University is currently participating in a project focused on encouraging the adoption of project-based techniques.

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Assessing Engineering Student Attitudes about Cognition Due to Project-Based Curriculum NSF Grant 1037808In recent years, a substantial amount of research has been presented on project-based learning foreducating engineers. It has been observed that this approach fosters a deeper learning andunderstanding of engineering concepts as opposed to the traditiona l lecture-based coursestructure. In addition, research has documented the prevalence of “Ill-Structured” problems thatengineers face in their professional lives.(Jonassen, Strobel et al. 2006) Posing these types of“problems” in an academic environment would better prepare students for higher achievementafter graduation, but adoption is sporadic.A research group at Boise State University is working to understand how to overcome thehurdles of transforming from a lecture-based curriculum to a more project-centered curriculum.Even knowing the benefits of project-based approaches, engineering faculty must overcomebarriers such as limited time, assessment methods, accreditation requirements, knowledge ofunfamiliar techniques and student resistance. Student resistance was identified as part of aninitial inquiry into these barriers. According to Evans, high achieving learners regardless ofdiscipline typically possess three characteristics.(Evans, Kirby et al. 2003) High level learnersthink deeply about the subject rather than superficial memorization, are adaptive in their processrather than repeating a single method, and have an attitude that reflects a “Need for Cognition”or a willingness to put forth cognitive effort. It is typically assumed that a project-basedcurriculum in engineering education promotes these characteristics and encourages higher level-learning. In fact, for project-based learning to be widely adopted, there must be a willingnesswithin the student body to modify their traditional role within the curriculum.Anecdotal evidence suggests that attitudes towards higher levels of learning vary amongengineering students. Many engineering students appear to be more comfortable in rigidstructured learning environments, while some students seem to prefer more creative expression.Improving each student’s comfort with the “Ill-Structured” problems faced in professionalcareers should be a goal of project-based education, but may also be a hurdle towards effectiveteaching. In this study, a group of engineering students were surveyed using the “Need forCognition” study to evaluate engineering student attitudes towards using cognitive tools.(Pettyand Cacioppo 1982) This survey was performed at the beginning and end of a senior mechanicalengineering course with a project-oriented curriculum. The data was collected anonymously butwith tracking numbers to identify any changes in attitudes as a result of exposure to project-based assignments. The data will be presented and trends will be identified with the intention ofimproving the implementation of future project-based courses from a student perspective.References:Evans, C., J. Kirby, et al. (2003). "Approaches to learning, need for cognition, and strategicflexibility among university students." British Journal of Educational Psychology 73(4): 507-528.Jonassen, D., J. Strobel, et al. (2006). "Everyday problem solving in engineering: Lessons forengineering educators." JOURNAL OF ENGINEERING EDUCATION-WASHINGTON-95(2): 139.Petty, R. and J. Cacioppo (1982). "The need for cognition." Journal of Personality and SocialPsychology 42(1): 116-131.

Plumlee, D. (2011, June), Assessing Engineering Student Attitudes about Cognition Due to Project-Based Curriculum Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.

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