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Destigmatizing Confusion – A Path Toward Professional Practice

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

ERM Technical Session 3: Working in Teams

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Ed LeRoy Michor Oregon State University Orcid 16x16

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Ed is currently a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University, working with Prof. Milo Koretsky. He had previously worked as a process design engineer at Intel in Hillsboro, OR. He received his PhD and Master's in Chemical Engineering from University of Washington, under the academic guidance of Prof. John C. Berg, while studying the charging behavior of colloids in nonpolar media. He received a Bachelor's in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, where he studied with Profs. Aditya Bhan and Lanny Schmidt. His current research involves the characterization of student engagement with realistic and contextualized activities in order to better situate students as professional engineers.

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Susan Bobbitt Nolen University of Washington Orcid 16x16

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Professor of Learning Sciences & Human Development

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Milo Koretsky Oregon State University

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Milo Koretsky is a Professor of Chemical Engineering at Oregon State University. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from UC San Diego and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, all in Chemical Engineering. He currently has research activity in areas related engineering education and is interested in integrating technology into effective educational practices and in promoting the use of higher-level cognitive skills in engineering problem solving. His research interests particularly focus on what prevents students from being able to integrate and extend the knowledge developed in specific courses in the core curriculum to the more complex, authentic problems and projects they face as professionals. Dr. Koretsky is one of the founding members of the Center for Lifelong STEM Education Research at OSU.

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This research paper reports work within a curricular reform project in 11 core studio courses to create assignments that better resemble the work done in engineering practice. These group activities cast students in the role of professional engineers working on design projects, allowing multiple solution paths. In this paper, we examine an episode in which a student group exhibits “glorious confusion,” a state of engagement that, we argue, shifts their orientation from students completing a course assignment to practicing engineers working on a design task. Our research questions are:

1) How do student teams take up an engineering task designed for them to adopt roles reflective of professional engineers? 2) In what ways might confusion be a productive state of engagement towards forming engineers?

Building on our previous clinical study, we adopt the framework of figured worlds, defined as socially constructed realms in which the participants adopt roles, cultural values and associated actions. We contrast two such worlds: (1) “engineering world,” in which reasoning is grounded in engineering principles and the physical system being designed, and which values making meaningful progress on a task, and (2) “school world,” in which reasoning is limited by the topic under current consideration in class, and which values completed assignments and a “correct” answer. This research takes place within the context of a larger and ongoing project studying the interactions of students from multiple courses that are implementing studio activities redesigned to elicit “engineering world” participation.

The concept of “glorious confusion” arises from video analysis of students working on revised studio problems. It is engagement characterized by extended discussion in which students appear to think like engineers but make little progress. It is “glorious” because it aligns with our goal of fostering more realistic engineering work. However, some engineering faculty viewing these videos have critiqued what they see as “floundering” and doubt the advisability of inducing it during studios. We present an analysis of six gloriously confused students working on one of the redesigned activities in a sophomore material balances class. The group must redesign a candy production process, the hydrolysis of sugars in a solution of hydrochloric acid, to enable use of a new additive.

Initially the group engages in “school world” thinking, directed by a student oriented towards simply completing a class activity. When they fail to account for all of the acid, she argues that they are probably not expected to attend to it in a school problem. The group shifts to “engineering world” when a previously quiet student raise the ethical concern that the acid could end up in their product. The group members become engrossed in answering the practical question, where does the acid go? All six students demonstrate greater engagement and clearly reason using the core concept in the course, conservation of mass, as they refute ideas and propose alternatives. Importantly, the group leader also shifts her reasoning process in this way. We argue that glorious confusion is the precursor towards a more productive orientation that aligns with the types of thinking and reasoning of professionals.

Michor, E. L., & Nolen, S. B., & Koretsky, M. (2019, June), Destigmatizing Confusion – A Path Toward Professional Practice Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32625

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