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Designing Solutions in Middle School Engineering: An Exploration of Epistemic Practices of Engineering in Small Group Contexts (Work in Progress)

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Pre-College Engineering Education Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Ramya Sivaraj University of Minnesota Orcid 16x16

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Ramya Sivaraj is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota, specializing in STEM education with a supporting minor in Learning Technologies. She has teaching experience in science and education at various levels, including graduate courses in science education, undergraduate courses in geological sciences, and 8th grade science and language arts. Her research interests include studying collaborative discourse, with a focus on epistemic resources and practices in integrated STEM contexts. Her research examines how middle school students engage in epistemic practices to construct meaning and work through challenges during small group engineering design activities.

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Jeanna R. Wieselmann Southern Methodist University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Jeanna R. Wieselmann is an Assistant Professor of STEM Education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. Her research focuses on equity in STEM and has explored student participation patterns in small group STEM activities. She studies STEM schools, integrated STEM curriculum development, and teacher professional development to support equitable teaching practices.

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Gillian Roehrig University of Minnesota - Twin Cities Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Roehrig is a professor of STEM Education at the University of Minnesota. Her research explores issues of professional development for K-12 science teachers, with a focus on beginning teachers and implementation of integrated STEM learning environments. She has received over $30 million in federal and state grants and published over 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. She is a former board member of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching and past president of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

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Students construct meaning and build epistemic understandings through discourse, interactions, and social practices, which collectively make up epistemic practices [1], [2]. Small group engineering activities offer opportunities to examine collaborative interactions and discourse as students make sense of engineering problems and design solutions. As engineering education evolves, it is important to understand epistemic practices of engineering (EPEs) that promote construction of new understandings, including how students use ideas and materials to construct meaning during small group engineering design activities. This study examined EPEs during small group design activities in a middle school science class.

This study focused on the Museum Security curriculum unit, which was designed to address 6th grade science and mathematics standards as students worked in teams to design a laser security system to protect the artifacts in a traveling museum exhibit. Students were expected to apply their knowledge of the properties of light and geometry to produce a solution to meet the criteria and constraints provided by a fictitious client. Based on transcripts and recordings, we selected significant meaning-making events and moments of rich discourse when members of the group worked together, and where the discourse shaped collaborative meaning-making and knowledge-building related to the engineering design challenge. EPEs identified by Cunningham and Kelly [3] were utilized as an analytical framework. In our work, we operationalized and refined these EPEs in order to use them in the small group collaborative discourse context. Discourse in the form of statements, questions, and group interactions were analyzed during each of the significant meaning-making events. Thus, student discourse, which included talk and actions, was analyzed to identify knowledge-building resources and EPEs used by students. These practices were made visible through small group discourse and interactions with the learning environment (peers, mentors, artifacts etc.), particularly as students designed and optimized solutions within the engineering context. Subsequent rounds of coding based on EPEs enabled central themes to be systematically conceptualized and, subsequently, for findings to be generated.

The analysis revealed that students engaged in various EPEs that highlighted how individual cognitive processes and collaborative meaning-making and knowledge-building are inherently interwoven as students constructed meaning while working in engineering design teams. Students displayed a range of EPEs, including taking into account criteria and constraints during the design process, using test information to make significant changes to move a failed design forward, and evaluating multiple solutions against each other. Preliminary findings include how students’ use of EPEs supported them in a) pushing beyond the scope of set criteria and constraints to collaborate toward innovation; b) utilizing design failure to better understand the problems in context; and c) contributing as a group to iterative-reflective cycles. Findings contribute to enhancing K-12 engineering teaching and learning with a focus on collaborative problem-solving throughout the engineering design process. Findings of this study also have significant implications related to the structure and design of small group collaborative K-12 engineering learning experiences.


[1] G. J. Kelly, “Inquiry, Activity, and Epistemic Practice” in Teaching Scientific Inquiry: Recommendations for Research and Implementation R. Duschl and R. Grandy, Eds. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2008, pp. pp. 99-117, 288-291. [2] K. Knorr Cetina, "Epistemic Cultures: How the Sciences make Knowledge". Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. [3] C. M. Cunningham and G. J. Kelly, “Epistemic Practices of Engineering for Education” Science Education, vol. 101, pp. 486-505, Jan. 2017. doi:10.1002/sce.21271

Sivaraj, R., & Wieselmann, J. R., & Roehrig, G. (2021, July), Designing Solutions in Middle School Engineering: An Exploration of Epistemic Practices of Engineering in Small Group Contexts (Work in Progress) Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36930

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