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Early work for the Mathematics as a Gatekeeper to Engineering Project: A Review of Informal Learning, Engineering and Design Thinking Literature

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

NSF Grantees' Poster Session

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.446.1 - 23.446.18



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Paper Authors


DeLean A Tolbert Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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DeLean Tolbert is a doctoral student of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She earned a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan–Dearborn and a M.S. in Industrial Engineering from the University of Michigan. Her research interests include: informal engineering learning and teaching, K-12 engineering education, and engineering thinking and learning within ethnic minority communities.

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Monica E Cardella Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Monica Cardella is an assistant professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She is also the director of Informal Learning Environments Research for the Institute for P-12 Engineering Learning and Research (INSPIRE). She conducts research on undergraduate engineering students' design and mathematical thinking in formal and informal contexts in addition to research on how children develop engineering thinking in informal learning environments.

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Mathematics as a Gatekeeper to Engineering: The Interplay between Mathematical Thinking and Design ThinkingEngineering education and engineering practice tend to be characterized by two complementaryhalves: engineering sciences and engineering design. While both are critical to engineeringeducation and practice, the two are often treated separately – as separate classes, taught byseparate faculty, and at times separate job functions. This project explores relationships betweenthese two “halves” by exploring the relationship between mathematical thinking and designthinking. The hypothesis guiding the research, informed by the investigator's experience withteaching first-year engineering students, is that the mathematical thinking processes that studentsdevelop in their pre-college education may serve as cognitive obstacles that students mustovercome in order to develop the design thinking skills that are critical for engineering practicebroadly as well as for creativity and innovation.This hypothesis is investigated through a verbal protocol study, where undergraduate studentswill be asked to "think aloud" while attending to a design task, allowing the researchers to videorecord the students’ though processes and then analyze mathematical thinking and designthinking patterns, such as convergent and divergent thinking; fixation; estimation and modeling;and responses to ambiguity and uncertainty. Students from a variety of mathematics, design andengineering backgrounds will be asked to participate, to capture possible differences betweenapproaches taken by students with more/less mathematics background and more/less designbackground. The verbal protocols data will be augmented by interviews with the students thatwill capture additional insights related to the design task as well as the students’ otherexperiences, beliefs and attitudes. The video data will be used in the form of excerpts in a first-year engineering class as a teaching tool to help students develop design thinking skills, and willbe used as a teaching tool in graduate engineering education courses to help graduate studentsdevelop research skills. The research findings can inform the design of educational activities – forexample, the teaching of mathematics and engineering in pre-college settings; the sequencing ofactivities in first-year engineering courses; and the overall design of engineering curricula.This project is still in its early stages. The paper and poster will focus on the development andselection of the design task used for the research study, and will include a review of other existinginstruments for assessing students’ understanding of design. The paper and poster will alsodiscuss recent educational interventions developed based on the research conducted to date.  

Tolbert, D. A., & Cardella, M. E. (2013, June), Early work for the Mathematics as a Gatekeeper to Engineering Project: A Review of Informal Learning, Engineering and Design Thinking Literature Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19460

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