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Board 116: Investigating Optimization as a Practice in Middle School Engineering

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Pre-College Engineering Education Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Matthew M. Johnson Penn State University Orcid 16x16

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Matt is an Assistant Professor with the Center for Science and the Schools in the College of Education at Penn State University. His research interests focus on how teachers learn about epistemic practices of engineers through in-service teacher professional development programs and how they provide opportunities for students to engage in them to learn disciplinary content.

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Amber Cesare Penn State Center for Science and the Schools

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Amber works for the Center for Science and the Schools at Penn State University as a STEM Education Outreach Specialist. Amber works with STEM researchers on the broader impacts component of NSF grants in order to develop and implement K-12 teacher professional development workshops centered on the practices of scientists and engineers. Amber also works to develop relationships with Pennsylvania school divisions to better support science education and enhance professional development opportunities for teachers.

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Gabe Knowles Center for Science and the Schools, Penn State University

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Gabe Knowles joined the Center for Science and the Schools at Penn State University as a STEM Education Outreach Specialist in 2018. His role with CSATS is to collaborate with Penn State University scientists, engineers, and graduate students to develop and deliver professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers. Gabe’s primary focus of work is creating professional development opportunities for elementary teachers related to STEM education.

Gabe has extensive experience in public education having taught for 16 years in the classroom. During this time he taught math and science classes in grades 4, 5, and 6 as well as teaching middle school technology courses for grades 6-8. He also has taught all subjects in an inclusion classroom for several years. Gabe facilitated his classroom by engaging his students in an interdisciplinary thematic format as well as using project-based and place-based education strategies. He also has extensive experience in environmental stewardship and education outreach opportunities with the National Park Service, such as creating STEM curriculum and education workshops for Grand Teton and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parks.

Prior to his teaching career, Gabe worked in the field of wildlife ecology with the United States Geological Survey-Biological Resources Division at the Las Vegas Field Station in southern Nevada. His primary role was a field technician responsible for supervising field crews conducting research on several studies of the desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert. This position had Gabe working remotely across rugged desert terrain in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah.

Gabe has received several honors and recognition for his continued work, such as an Americorps Education Award, Teacher-Ranger-Teacher Award from the National Park Service, President’s Volunteer Service Award from George W. Bush, and the Exceptional People In Community Schools Award from the Michigan Education Association. His continued work in education, stewardship, and outreach have impacted children of all ages, including adults and professionals working in an array of fields.

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Taylor S. Wood Penn State Center for Science and the Schools Orcid 16x16

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Taylor received his B.S. degree in Physics from Brigham Young University, after which he worked for 5 years as a semiconductor engineer for Micron Technology in Boise, ID, specializing in numerical and computational data analysis. During this time, he also volunteered extensively with the educational arm of the Micron Foundation, bringing inquiry-based STEM outreach lessons to K-12 classrooms throughout the Boise area and serving as a career mentor to high school students interested in pursuing engineering as a career. Taylor’s role at CSATS focuses on interfacing with science and engineering research faculty to develop and implement K-12 teacher professional development.

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This work in progress paper describes a pilot study intended to better understand the ways students and teachers in a middle school engineering class iteratively optimize a multi-objective problem. Recent reforms in STEM education have placed an emphasis on engaging K-12 students in the knowledge-building practices of professionals as a way to teach and apply content, but so far few have looked closely at classrooms engaged in these practices. An ethnographic perspective was used to closely observe the talk and actions of three groups of eighth-grade students from a low-income rural school district and their teacher as they attempted to minimize cost, mass, and deflection of a truss cantilever using two computer-based tools. Methods of interactional sociolinguistics were used to analyze the ways in which they took risks to test the boundaries and balanced tradeoffs while still producing a physical prototype that could hold a 1.5 kg mass. Preliminary results suggest that when supported by their teacher, students became increasingly more comfortable with taking risks and pushing the boundaries of the structure in low-stakes situations. Additionally, we found that students were able to use a variety of approaches to strategically remove members, including applying scientific knowledge, and to appropriately compare the multiple models to select one to test with a physical prototype. To our knowledge, this is the first study to investigate optimization explicitly as a practice in a precollege context, and we hope it contributes to the knowledge base of our understanding of how students and teachers do engineering and how engineering educators can promote improved curriculum and pedagogy in this area.

Johnson, M. M., & Cesare, A., & Knowles, G., & Wood, T. S. (2019, June), Board 116: Investigating Optimization as a Practice in Middle School Engineering Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32200

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