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Conceptual Understanding of the Electrical Concepts of Voltage and Current: A Pilot Study of a Method to Create Representations of Students’ Mental Models

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

New Trends in ECE Education II

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.325.1 - 23.325.10



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Paper Authors


Mark T Carnes PE Purdue University, Electrical Engineering Technology

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Mark T. Carnes, Purdue University

Mark Carnes is a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and is currently an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Technology at Purdue University. He is also nearing completion of studies for a doctorate in Engineering Education, also at Purdue. Before coming to Purdue, he spent over 30 years as an electronics designer of control and power conversion circuits. He received an MS from the University of Michigan (1982) and a BS from the University of Notre Dame (1975), both in Electrical Engineering. His current research interests are in the areas of conceptual understanding and mental modeling among engineering students.

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Heidi A. Diefes-Dux Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Heidi A. Diefes-Dux is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She received her B.S. and M.S. in Food Science from Cornell University and her Ph.D. in Food Process Engineering from the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University. She is a member of Purdue’s Teaching Academy. Since 1999, she has been a faculty member within the First-Year Engineering Program at Purdue, the gateway for all first-year students entering the College of Engineering. She has coordinated and taught in a required first-year engineering course that engages students in open-ended problem solving and design. Her research focuses on the development, implementation, and assessment of model-eliciting activities with realistic engineering contexts. She is currently the Director of Teacher Professional Development for the Institute for P-12 Engineering Research and Learning (INSPIRE).

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Conceptual Understanding and Mental Models of the Electrical Concepts of Voltage and Current Held by Senior Electrical Engineering StudentsEvery field of study has a set of domain-specific concepts that anyone who desires to work inthat field must know and understand. Most students who have obtained university degrees inengineering are presumed to have attained this knowledge. But have they? Usually, assessmentsare made by written examinations that are not able to probe very deeply into the actual mentalmodels that the students use to solve problems. Students may become quite skillful atperforming calculations, doing homework, and passing tests, but without necessarilyunderstanding the course content very deeply.The theory of mental models asserts that most people organize their knowledge of the world bythe construction of mental models of the phenomena they have experienced or concepts theyhave learned. These models are then used to assimilate new experiences or to make predictionsabout what will occur in specific situations. The construction of these models, however, is notdone consciously, so the individual is often unaware of their existence.In the field of electrical engineering, among the most fundamental concepts that students need tounderstand are voltage and current. The mental models that they have constructed of thesephenomena will play a major role in their approaches to and the solving of engineering problemsin their professional career. These models consist of multiple levels of knowledge: definitions,formulas, laws (knowing “that”); procedures (knowing “how”); concepts, cause and effectrelationships (knowing “why”); and problem solving strategies, knowing which methods to useto address a given situation (knowing “when”).To construct representations of students’ mental models, a linguistic analysis of semi-structuredinterviews was used. In this pilot study of the interview protocol and analysis method,interviews were conducted with 2 senior EE students. The intent of the interviews is to engagethe participants in a conversation concerning their knowledge and experience in applying ideasof voltage and current by discussing their experiences in learning about and designing with thethree most fundamental components of all electrical systems: resistors, capacitors, and inductors.In the discussion of these actual components, participants naturally refer to the abstract ideas ofcurrent and voltage as they relate to the components. The interview transcripts were analyzed todetermine a representation of the underlying mental model of each participant that would beconsistent with the content of their interview. Each participant’s mental model is presented as acombination of a graphical concept map accompanied by a short narrative explaining the keyelements of the model.Research that reveals the types of mental models held by senior EE students could inform thedesign of instruction for the aforementioned concepts.

Carnes, M. T., & Diefes-Dux, H. A. (2013, June), Conceptual Understanding of the Electrical Concepts of Voltage and Current: A Pilot Study of a Method to Create Representations of Students’ Mental Models Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19339

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