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Breadth In Design Problem Scoping: Using Insights From Experts To Investigate Student Processes

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

New Models for Teaching and Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.321.1 - 12.321.24



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Paper Authors


Andrew Morozov University of Washington

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ANDREW MOROZOV is a graduate student in Educational Psychology, College of Education, University of Washington. Andrew is working on research projects within the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching (CELT) and the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE).

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Deborah Kilgore University of Washington

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DEBORAH KILGORE is a Research Scientist in the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching (CELT) and the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE), University of Washington. Her areas of specific interest and expertise include qualitative and mixed educational research methods, adult learning theory, student development, and women in education.

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Cynthia Atman University of Washington

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CYNTHIA J. ATMAN is the founding Director of the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching (CELT) in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington and the Director of the NSF funded Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE). Dr. Atman is a Professor in Industrial Engineering. Her research focuses on design learning and engineering education.

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Breadth in Design Problem Scoping: Using Insights from Experts to Investigate Student Processes Abstract

Because design plays a central role in engineering, it is important for engineering education programs to prepare students with design skills. By describing both novice and expert approaches to engineering design, researchers are contributing to the formulation of more specific design learning outcomes that may be addressed in curriculum design and program planning. One learning area where novices and experts differ is in how broadly they define engineering problems with which they are faced. This paper examines differences between how novices and experts approached the same hypothetical engineering problem. First-year students (n=124) and experienced engineers (n=4) were asked to identify factors they would take into account when designing a retaining wall system for the Mississippi River. Expert data were gathered using verbal protocol analysis, in which subjects were asked to “think aloud” as they addressed the retaining wall problem, and their statements were coded and interpreted. Novice data were gathered using a written protocol in which subjects were asked to simply list the factors on paper. Qualitative data were segmented into distinct ideas, which were then coded using a coding scheme with two dimensions of problem scoping breadth: physical location and frame of reference. We found that novices offered a greater proportion of factors from the natural and social frames of reference, versus technical and logistical frames, which indicated a rather broad approach the problem. We argue that this may reflect the novices’ relative inexperience with engineering concepts. While the four experts’ responses differed in terms of their representations through a “breadth of problem scoping” coding scheme, two of the responses echoed a characteristic top-down, breadth-first approach to design. The difference in protocols presents challenges in comparing expert and novice behavior, and methodological issues of collecting less information from a greater number of subjects versus collecting more information from fewer subjects were addressed. Because asking the experts to think aloud resulted in a rich data set, we employed narrative analysis to further investigate expert responses. The narrative analysis of expert problem scoping behavior suggested a sophisticated approach to situating problems and solutions in context. It highlighted several particular kinds of factors that the four experts in our sample were drawn to – existing engineered solutions, alternative design solutions, costs and benefits, priorities, and history. In addition, the narrative analysis illustrated the relationships between and among an expert’s ideas, and what these relationships imply for the expert designers’ thought processes.


Design plays a central role in engineering, and teaching and learning good design skills are important aspects of engineering education in colleges and universities1,2. ABET has recognized this need by including “an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs” among its eleven learning outcomes3. This emphasis on students’ development of design abilities raises questions about what these skills and knowledge actually encompass. What skills and knowledge are necessary for designers to design well? A key challenge, then, is the


Morozov, A., & Kilgore, D., & Atman, C. (2007, June), Breadth In Design Problem Scoping: Using Insights From Experts To Investigate Student Processes Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2318

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