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Designing And Assessing A Learning Environment To Support Mechanical Reasoning

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2002 Annual Conference


Montreal, Canada

Publication Date

June 16, 2002

Start Date

June 16, 2002

End Date

June 19, 2002



Conference Session

Student Teams and Active Learning

Page Count


Page Numbers

7.382.1 - 7.382.23



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Paper Authors

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Alice Agogino

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Ann McKenna

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Session 2138

Designing and Assessing a Learning Environment to Support Mechanical Reasoning

Ann McKenna, Alice Agogino

Northwestern University ( University of California at Berkeley (


This paper describes and assesses a learning environment designed to support mechanical reasoning and understanding of simple machines. Based on recommendations from the literature on instructional frameworks and cognitive aspects of mechanical reasoning, SIMALE (the Simple Machines Learning Environment) was designed to support reflection, collaboration, and presentation of concepts from multiple perspectives and contexts. SIMALE was implemented with middle and high school students with three treatment variations: (1) environment with focus on Lego exercises to engage in hands-on physical activities, (2) environment with focus on a web-based computer module, and (3) environment with both the computer module and Lego exercises. Learning was measured in three categories: analytic problem solving, conceptual understanding, and drawing and modeling ability. The assessment found that students significantly increased their understanding in all three categories for all treatment variations within SIMALE. The results revealed unexpected dramatic results in equalizing post-test scores, in spite of large population differences in pre-test scores. A complete description of the study, the assessments and the statistical analyses are presented. Based on these findings we present recommendations for creating educational experiences and environments that support development and application of simple machines concepts.


A concept that is encountered in many science classrooms as well as in every day life is how mechanical advantage is gained through simple machines. One is confronted with simple machines and mechanical advantage when playing on a seesaw, changing gears in a car or on a bicycle, or prying open a can. Furthermore, concepts of mechanical advantage, force and motion, and energy principles are common subject matter requirements listed in many state science standards. One example from the New York science standards is given below.

New York Standard 4-Physical Science. Energy and matter interact through forces that result in changes in motion. Use simple machines made of pulleys and levers to lift objects and describe how each machine transforms the force applied to it1.

“Proceedings of the 2002 American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2002, American Society for Engineering Education”

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Agogino, A., & McKenna, A. (2002, June), Designing And Assessing A Learning Environment To Support Mechanical Reasoning Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. 10.18260/1-2--10735

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