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Board 53: Work in Progress: Learning Assistant “Noticing” in Undergraduate Engineering Science Courses

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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

Educational Research and Methods Division Poster Session

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Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Kristen B. Wendell Tufts University

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Kristen Wendell is Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Education at Tufts University. Her research efforts at at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach focus on supporting discourse and design practices during K-12, teacher education, and college-level engineering learning experiences, and increasing access to engineering in the elementary school experience, especially in under-resourced schools. In 2016 she was a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

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Douglas Matson Tufts University

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Dr. Matson is an Associate Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Tufts University. He was a founding member of the Tufts team piloting the concept of enhancing undergraduate education through deployment of learning assistants in the classroom. He coordinates interdisciplinary service learning opportunities for undergraduate students in his role as adviser to the Tufts student chapter of Engineers without Borders and for graduate students as part of a NASA sponsored community outreach efforts in local high school systems. His research interests are in manufacturing, materials science and selection of appropriate technology for sustainable engineering projects.

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Hernan Gallegos Tufts University

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Hernán Gallegos is an undergraduate student at Tufts University. He is studying Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Engineering Education. His academic interests lie in trying to aid students to understand engineering concepts and how they can enhance their learning through various resources. With this in mind, he is working within the Engineering Learning Systems lab under Professor Kristen Wendell, a Mechanical Engineering Professor. With this opportunity, Hernán is able to further his understanding of both engineering and education to aid the generations who aim to become future engineers.

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Luisa Chiesa Tufts University

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Mechanical Engineering

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In this work-in-progress study, we characterize the ways in which undergraduate learning assistants demonstrate responsive teaching capacities in an engineering science course.

Many engineering educators are exploring new approaches to support more productive learning behaviors during required engineering science courses. These approaches range from pedagogy workshops for faculty to programs fostering student reflection and meta-cognition. Some engineering departments are also establishing “learning assistant” programs that incorporate pedagogically trained undergraduate students as members of course instructional teams. Disseminated by the Learning Assistant Alliance, this model first became widespread in introductory physics and biology courses but is quickly spreading to other disciplines, including engineering. Under this model, learning assistants are undergraduate students who serve as facilitators of student thinking for a course they have already taken. Learning assistants are trained in student-centered pedagogy through a weekly “pedagogy seminar” offered specifically for learning assistants and led by an instructor with expertise in science or engineering education. This seminar supports the learning assistants in developing and reflecting on productive and equitable approaches to promoting student thinking.

Empirical studies have shown that students in science and engineering courses with learning assistants make higher gains on concept inventory tests than students in similar courses without learning assistants. However, little is known about the mechanism through which learning assistant programs support these improved outcomes. One hypothesis is that learning assistants may notice and respond to aspects of student thinking that complement what faculty instructors notice.

In this pilot study, we implemented a small learning assistant program in the thermodynamics course required for mechanical engineering students at our university. We conducted a qualitative case study to investigate the research question, what aspects of engineering student thinking and related features of the learning environment do undergraduate learning assistants notice in an introductory engineering science course?

We use the methodological approach of qualitative descriptive case study and a theoretical framework based on research on teacher noticing and responsive teaching. Data sources include field notes from the pedagogy seminar and interviews with the learning assistants and professors. Drawing from grounded theory methods, we conducted line-by-line coding of the interview transcripts and pedagogy seminar field notes for evidence of learning assistant noticing of students’ thermodynamics ideas and practices and the aspects of the learning environment that influence them.

We organize our findings by three major categories of learning assistant noticing: noticing students’ disciplinary ideas and practices, noticing the influential features of the learning environment and social dynamics, and noticing changes in one’s own learning. These findings may have implications not only for the design of learning assistant programs in engineering departments but also for faculty professional development.

Wendell, K. B., & Matson, D., & Gallegos, H., & Chiesa, L. (2019, June), Board 53: Work in Progress: Learning Assistant “Noticing” in Undergraduate Engineering Science Courses Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32372

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