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Determining The Importance Of Hands On Ability For Engineers

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

ERM Potpourri

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.438.1 - 14.438.6



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Paper Authors


Michele Miller Michigan Technological University

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Dr. Michele Miller is an Associate Professor in mechanical engineering. She teaches classes on manufacturing and controls and does disciplinary research on microelectromechanical systems and precision machining. Her educational research interests include problem solving in the lab and informal engineering education.

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Leonard Bohmann Michigan Technological University

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Dr. Leonard Bohmann is a faculty member in electrical engineering and presently serves as the Associate Dean of Engineering. His disciplinary research interests are in expanding the use of renewable energy in electric power systems. He has research interests in gender differences and how they relate to engineering education as well as methods to increase the participation of women in engineering.

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William Helton Michigan Technological University

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Dr. William Helton is an Associate Professor in cognitive and learning sciences. He teaches classes in human factors and educational psychology and does disciplinary research on attention, expertise, and stress. His educational research interests include cognitive load theory, expertise development, and psychometrics.

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Anna Pereira Michigan Technological University

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Anna Pereira is a graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her research interests are thermal systems and engineering education.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Determining the Importance of Hands-On Ability for Engineers Keywords: hands-on, attributes, industry


Two challenges facing engineering educators today are: (1) to provide a curriculum that prepares graduates for the work of the twenty-first century; (2) to recruit more students to the field of engineering. A number of reports cite the shortcomings of current curricula1-4. For example, the traditional engineering curriculum does not prepare graduates to adapt quickly to new job requirements or to work effectively in the global economy or to solve the large complex problems of alternative energy, environmental protection, and homeland security. Furthermore, the number of students graduating with engineering degrees in the U.S. each year has remained relatively constant in recent decades despite the need for technical solutions to important societal problems and even as the number of degrees awarded in other countries has increased. Outreach to K12 student populations5 and greater flexibility in the engineering curriculum6 are recognized as important components of a solution to this problem.

Hands-on ability has an important role in both challenges mentioned above. Although engineering work in the twenty-first century will be increasingly sophisticated, practical ability and intuition about physical phenomenon remain important. In fact, the NAE cites “practical ingenuity” as one of the key attributes of the engineer of 20201. Because students today are less likely to have grown up in rural communities than their predecessors, they have probably had fewer opportunities to tinker. Instead of fixing the family tractor or the hay bailer, the engineering students of today and tomorrow will have lived a cocooned virtual life of video games and online chat forums. While facility with computers is advantageous, our curricula do not provide adequate opportunities for many students to overcome this tinkering deficit. More importantly, there is some evidence that low self-efficacy with respect to tinkering may even turn some students off from engineering7,8. We proceed with three premises: that hands-on ability is important for the engineering work of the 21st century; that hands-on ability enhances the enjoyment of and interest in doing engineering; and that hands-on ability can be taught. Regarding the last premise, some may believe that hands-on ability is an innate attribute or talent that differs by gender. Nevertheless, current scientific evidence suggests tool-use and technical ability is a common attribute of our shared lineage 9,10,11. Moreover, the scientific evidence that inherent talent plays a large role in vocational expertise is actually very weak, whereas, the evidence supporting the role of practice and experience is exceptionally strong12.

Our work has several goals. The first is to determine whether and why “hands-on ability” is important. Recognizing that “hands-on ability” is more than a motor skill, part of this goal is to understand the cognitive and perceptual abilities that are encompassed by “hands-on ability”. Another goal is to determine how hands-on ability affects student motivation, confidence and attitude toward engineering. A third goal is to determine which experiences are most helpful in developing hands-on ability. Finally, we are interested in identifying practices at the undergraduate level that can effectively teach hands-on ability. It should be noted that our work is focusing primarily on mechanical and electrical engineering students. There are several reasons for this: ME and EE are popular majors with large numbers of students; both fields have

Miller, M., & Bohmann, L., & Helton, W., & Pereira, A. (2009, June), Determining The Importance Of Hands On Ability For Engineers Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--5243

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: © 2009 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