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Developing Technical Self-efficacy through a Maker-inspired Design Project

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Maker Spaces in the First Year

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First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Jennifer S Mullin UC Davis

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Jennifer S. Mullin is an Assistant Professor of Teaching in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis. Her work concerns the intersection between design, communication and problem solving skills in engineering by enhancing all three through informed instructional choices using a “learn-by-doing,” hands-on approach.

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The purpose of this study is to evaluate first-year engineering student’s technical confidence and to begin understanding how they experience technical aspects of a hands-on open-ended physical computing design project. The range of student diversity in the communication and introductory engineering design class at a large primarily Hispanic-serving public university presents certain challenges to traditional teaching and learning of digital prototyping. With the goal of providing an equitable and accessible learning experience, regardless of prior hands-on experiences with technology, instructors promote a making and tinkering approach. Understanding student’s experiences with this instructional approach is advantageous for curricular improvements aimed at providing an effective learning environment. Research into undergraduate student’s technical confidence has larger implications particularly regarding their persistence in academic programs and formative self-concept as engineers.

Brief Background on problem being addressed

Students enrolled in a quarter-long oral communication and introductory engineering elective (n = 192) participate in a team-based physical-computing themed design project. The aim of the technology and prototyping educational activities are to provide an equitable, supportive, collaborative and engaging learning experience for all students, regardless of incoming technology skills. In support of these goals, emphasis is placed on a making and tinkering approach to the teaching and learning of technology. Early in the course, all students receive general instruction on use of open-source technologies (e.g., Arduino, Raspberry Pi, sensors, electronic components etc.) and prototyping techniques (e.g., 3d Printing, Laser Cutter, etc.) for use in the open-ended design project assignment. Engineering graduate teaching assistants (TAs) offer supplemental instruction on coding, electronics and prototyping during open studio sessions to all interested students. Student teams work on a project of their choosing to address challenges on the campus-based student farm (i.e., the design client) and develop functional proof of concept prototypes. The college provides all technical resources and project materials necessary for completing the projects. Teams present their prototypes and posters at a Final Design Showcase where invited guests (faculty, alumni, graduate students, staff, etc.) provided feedback and evaluation. Throughout the quarter-long experience, student evaluation is limited to a series of communication and teamwork assignments. Technical skills and/or technical achievements are not graded. Research on making and tinkering support the role of improvisational creative problem solving and activities focused on designing, creating and demonstrating interactive products in pre- and post-secondary education. Student participation in making and tinkering activities has been linked to enhanced STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning in terms of building confidence, supporting development of identity as well as improved content area knowledge.


This study utilized a mixed-method approach to explore students’ learning experiences with the technology and tinkering aspects of the course. Early in the course, students completed the “Tinkering and Technical Self-efficacy” Likert-scale survey instrument developed by Baker et all (2015) to assess their confidence with technology problem solving and tinkering. Data collected regarding prior experiences with the Arduino, Raspberry Pi, electronics, laser cutter and 3D printer provides background on student’s technical skills coming into the project. Reflection assignments assigned throughout project-based course provide insight into student’s experiences with the technical, making and tinkering aspects of the project. Research questions addressed in this study: Do students enrolled in the course have confidence in their technical problem-solving and tinkering skills? What are student’s experiences with the making and tinkering approach to learning digital technologies and prototyping? Did they find the experience challenging? How do they feel about their creation? What new technical skills did they learn?

Results (or anticipated results)

Quantitative and qualitative analysis outcomes are presented for a subset of first year students enrolled in fall 2019. Data will include aggregated technology problem-solving tinkering self-efficacy scores, student demographics, background on prior technical experiences and samples from reflection assignments illustrating student’s experiences with the making and tinkering approach to learning digital technologies and prototyping. Discussion covers implications these outcomes have for curriculum development and course improvement initiatives.

Mullin, J. S. (2020, June), Developing Technical Self-efficacy through a Maker-inspired Design Project Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34435

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