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Assessing the Impact of Engineering Problem Typology on Students’ Initial Problem-solving Trajectory

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Teaching In and Through Design, Maker Spaces, and Open-ended Problems

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Andrew Olewnik University at Buffalo

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Andrew Olewnik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Education at the University at Buffalo. His research includes undergraduate engineering education with focus on engineering design process and methods, ill-structured problem solving, problem typology, and experiential and informal learning environments in the professional formation of engineers. He is interested in the development of tools, methods, and strategies that aid in engineering problem definition, and problem solving discourse among students, faculty, and practitioners. Dr. Olewnik is also the Director of Experiential Learning for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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Randy Yerrick Fresno State University

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Randy Yerrick is Dean of the Kremen School for Education and Human Development at CSU Fresno. He has also served as Professor of Science Education at SUNY Buffalo where he Associate Dean and Science Education Professor for the Graduate School of Education. Dr. Yerrick maintains an active research agenda focusing on two central questions: 1) How do scientific norms of discourse get enacted in classrooms and 2) To what extend can historical barriers to STEM learning be traversed for underrepresented students through expert teaching practices? For his efforts in examining science for the under-served, Dr. Yerrick has received numerous research and teaching awards including the Journal of Research in Science Teaching Outstanding Research Paper Award, Journal of Engineering Education “Wickenden Best Paper Award” (Honorable Mention), the Most Outstanding College Science Teacher Award from the Science Teacher Association of New York State, the Teaching Innovation Award from The State University of New York, and The STAR Award for Outstanding Mentoring. He has held fellowships in several organizations such as the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure, the San Diego State Center for Teaching and Learning, and has on the Board of Directors for the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, served as their Director of Communications, and served for nearly 20 years as an Apple Distinguished Educator. Professor Yerrick is also a founding Member of the Science Educators for Equity, Diversity and Social Justice.

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Manoj Madabhushi

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Rachith Ramanathapura Ramaswamy University at Buffalo

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Introduction: Students often struggle in the initial phases of engineering problem solving as marked by difficulties in problem setting and developing a plan for problem solving. These difficulties can lead to students pursuing unproductive problem-solving trajectories that lead to frustration and reinforce behaviors of just “getting through” a problem rather than learning in ways that transfers to other contexts. As problems becomes increasingly ill-structured, these difficulties are exacerbated, creating a tension between instructors and students that can deter faculty from engaging in problem solving experiences that better prepare students for engineering practice.

Focus: In this study, we explored the potential for an explicated ‘engineering problem typology’ (EPT) to serve as a framework for engaging students in ill-structured problem. Students were introduced to EPT through three seminar style sessions as a form of training. This training was provided while students worked on a co-curricular group project. The EPT training and co-curricular project serve as an educational intervention. Methods: Toward understanding the impact of EPT training we conducted pre-/post-EPT problem solving sessions. Student pairs were asked to collaborate on two ill-structured problems – a design problem and an engineering case analysis problem – for 10-15 minutes while their discussion was recorded. We applied a mixed-methods analysis of: 1) the problem-solving discussions, 2) the written artifacts generated during the discussions, and 3) debrief discussions with students regarding their approach to solving and thinking about the problem.

Results: Six student pairs were analyzed and evidenced change that we argue as positive change. All pairs demonstrated a shift in the nature of their problem-solving discussion from pre to post as represented by EPT discourse patterns. This includes explicit identification of the problem type, specifically referencing process stages, and in most cases, discussions aligned with EPT frameworks.

This change in discourse patterns coincided with change in written artifacts. We found that written artifacts more frequently used EPT terms in organizing information in post compared to pre. In addition, we found a statistically significant increase in the amount of information documented in the post artifacts as compared with pre. This suggests that students were better able to consider a variety of problem relevant information after exposure to engineering problem typology.

The debrief discussions revealed that students had improved metacognition with respect to their problem-solving approach from pre to post, as reflected in their awareness and reference to various strategies and stages appropriate for the problem type.

Implications: Taken together these results suggest that EPT can provide a grounded framework to help students in developing skills and practice with ill-structured problem solving, including support of their metacognition with respect to solving such problems. Additionally, EPT may provide a foundation for developing pedagogical tools to assist faculty in developing ill-structured problems and facilitating solution of those problems.

Olewnik, A., & Yerrick, R., & Madabhushi, M., & Ramaswamy, R. R. (2021, July), Assessing the Impact of Engineering Problem Typology on Students’ Initial Problem-solving Trajectory Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36717

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