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Distinguishing Among Processes Of Problem Solving, Design, And Research To Improve Project Performance

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2007 Annual Conference & Exposition


Honolulu, Hawaii

Publication Date

June 24, 2007

Start Date

June 24, 2007

End Date

June 27, 2007



Conference Session

FPD7 -- Service Learning

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

12.555.1 - 12.555.15



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Paper Authors

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Dan Cordon University of Idaho

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Barbara Williams University of Idaho

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Steven Beyerlein University of Idaho

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Donald Elger University of Idaho

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

Distinguishing Among Processes of Problem Solving, Design, and Research to Improve Project Performance

Abstract Professionals in all disciplines are continually engaged in problem solving, design, and research. Because steps in these processes appear similar, many faculty conceptualize a single, universal model for all three processes. However, for students who are just learning these processes, a universal model may not be the best way to build performance skills. This work was undertaken to help novices understand unique characteristics of each process and the circumstances under which each process is most effective and efficient. This paper examines two tools that were created to build this understanding: (i) a matrix analyzing the similarities and differences among the processes and (ii) a graphical presentation highlighting key skills that are hypothesized for each process. Effectiveness of the two tools was evaluated in a freshman design course where teams of five students work on a six-week design mini-project. Data collected included notes by the instructor, observations by peer coaches who observed an activity, and written feedback provided by student teams. In the activity, teams were asked to use the tools to distinguish between problem-solving and design activities that they had performed earlier in the semester. Next, the students were asked to classify a number of simple scenarios. Finally, feedback was solicited about the greatest strengths and areas of improvement for each of the tools as well as insights gained through this class activity. Findings were validated by separate focus groups with design faculty and with students enrolled in a capstone design course. Both students and faculty envisioned the two tools to be a natural extension of project work, prompting new insights about the role of problem solving, design, and research in engineering practice.

Introduction One of the most valued skills of an engineer is the ability to solve problems. However, the definition of “problem solving” varies widely depending on the context or community in which it is used. Many faculty tend to favor a definition that is all encompassing – where any task, no matter how large or small, with an unknown solution denotes a problem. For mature problem solvers, such a definition is powerful and meaningful1. While valuable insights can be derived from a universal model, there may be drawbacks to doing so from the standpoint of novice problem solvers. Universal models tend to focus on methods rather than intermediate results. For those in a learning role, it is often difficult to translate abstract steps of a universal methodology into concrete, relevant actions. There may also be unique, value-added learning skills associated with problem solving, design, and research that tend to be diluted in a universal model. Lack of attention to limiting learning skills, in turn, may hinder development of expertise in a process area. Understanding key differences between problem solving, design, and research allows one to select the process that best supports a desired outcome, gives clearer vision of one’s location when executing the process, and provides guidance for making transitions between processes. The objective of this paper is not to re-define problem solving. Instead, working definitions that explicitly distinguish between problem solving, design, and research are presented to students who are then asked how this framework could benefit their project work. In addition to the qualitative feedback, comprehension of the three definitions was measured by asking students to classify common engineering challenges as primarily problem solving, design, or research.

Cordon, D., & Williams, B., & Beyerlein, S., & Elger, D. (2007, June), Distinguishing Among Processes Of Problem Solving, Design, And Research To Improve Project Performance Paper presented at 2007 Annual Conference & Exposition, Honolulu, Hawaii. 10.18260/1-2--2733

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