Asee peer logo

Characterizing Indicators of Students' Productive Disciplinary Engagement in Solving Fluids Mechanics Problems

Download Paper |


2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Curricular Innovations 1

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Jessica E. S. Swenson Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach

visit author page

Jessica Swenson is a graduate student at Tufts University. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a research focus on engineering education. She received a M.S. from Tufts University in science, technology, engineering and math education and a B.S. from Northwestern University in mechanical engineering. Her current research involves examining different types of homework problems in mechanical engineering coursework and the design process of undergraduate students in project-based courses.

visit author page


Kristen B. Wendell Tufts University

visit author page

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).

visit author page

Download Paper |


This research paper describes the study of students’ disciplinary engagement and learning while solving faculty-created fluid mechanics problems.

Engineering education literature has highlighted the preparedness gap between graduating engineers and their workplace needs. One reason for this gap, according to research, may be that engineering coursework emphasizes highly structured problems instead of ill-defined problems with many possible solution paths like those typically found in the engineering workplace. While some engineering programs have tried to remedy this problem by providing additional design classes or incorporating problem-based learning strategies (e.g. Modeling Eliciting Activities) into engineering science courses, the majority of student time will still be spent on highly structured out of class homework problems. These problems are usually found at the end of chapters in textbooks or written by the professor.

This study is part of a larger effort examining the learning dynamics of different types of out-of-class projects and problem sets assigned to mechanical engineering students. This study explores student interaction with homework problems for a typical third year fluid mechanics class in a small private research university. Specifically, it investigates faculty-created problems which focus on authentic situations which parallel real-world challenges. These problems differ from textbook problems in that the students contribute to problem define by the assumptions they decide to make. This type of problem allows students to practice making decisions about how to model real life situations, a skill they will most likely be asked to do in their future work as an engineer.

Data sources include video of students working through homework problems, copies of student work, in-class field notes, and interviews with students following homework sessions. Microethnographic analysis and strategies from discourse analysis are used to analyze selected videos of students working through a problem. The analysis focuses on characterizing indicators of students’ productive disciplinary engagement while working on these homework problems.

Initial findings suggest that productive disciplinary engagement took the form of careful discussion of assumptions to refine the model, consideration of students’ instincts of system behavior, and application of fluid mechanics concepts. Analysis results also suggest engaging with this type of problems facilitates students’ development of conceptual knowledge and may shift student epistemologies about what constitutes authentic engineering practice.

The results from this study have implications for better understanding the way students learn conceptual knowledge through homework problems and how student epistemologies can affect their learning from homework. Results also have implications for homework design in engineering science courses to better prepare students to model real-life scenarios and create a sense of authenticity for students’ work.

Swenson, J. E. S., & Wendell, K. B. (2017, June), Characterizing Indicators of Students' Productive Disciplinary Engagement in Solving Fluids Mechanics Problems Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28026

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2017 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015