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Encouraging Conceptual Change In Science Through The Use Of Engineering Design In Middle School

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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

Engineering in the Middle Grades

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.531.1 - 14.531.21



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Paper Authors


Christine Schnittka University of Virginia

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Christine Schnittka is a 2009 graduate of the University of Virginia with a Ph.D. in science education. She has ten years experience teaching middle school science, plus masters and bachelors degrees in mechanical engineering.

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Randy Bell University of Virginia

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Randy Bell is Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Virginia.

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Larry Richards University of Virginia

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Larry Richards is Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Virginia.

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

Encouraging Conceptual Change in Science through the Use of Engineering Design in Middle School Abstract

The United States is suffering from a national crisis in science and math education. At the middle and high school level, US students perform poorly on standardized tests in comparison to other developed countries. Middle school may be the key to capturing students’ interest in math and science; this is the time when many children decide they are not interested in science, or not good at math. Additionally, most never get the chance to learn about engineering.

In this study, eighth grade students participated in an engineering design-based curriculum called Save the Penguins in order to learn about heat transfer. Students worked in groups of four, and were required to test materials, then design, build, and test a device which would keep a penguin- shaped ice cube from melting in a test oven. The curriculum, designed by the first author, had been pilot tested in five other middle school classes prior to this study. Three groups of students participated in the current study (N=65), equivalent in terms of their seventh grade standardized test scores on reading and math (p = .600). All students had the same teacher. Students took a 12- item multiple choice pretest on heat transfer, and the pretest scores were equivalent for all three groups (p = .763). Students also took an 11-item Likert scale survey of engineering attitudes, and the pretest scores were equivalent for all three groups (p=.111).

Group #1 received the engineering design curriculum, but did not receive five demonstrations aimed at promoting conceptual change. These demonstrations relied on discrepant events, student prediction, and discussion, and targeted well-researched alternative conceptions about heat transfer possessed by young adults. Group #2 did not receive the engineering design curriculum; instead they were taught the same concepts about heat transfer by the same teacher, but in the method she typically taught. Group #3 received the full engineering design curriculum in addition to the five demonstrations designed by the researcher.

Results indicate that all three classes made statistically significant gains in knowledge about heat transfer and that the two classes involved in engineering design activities made statistically significant gains in engineering attitudes. However, when the three classes were compared, Group #3, the class that received the discrepant event demonstrations, made significant and substantial gains in comprehending heat transfer when compared to Group #1, which received the engineering design activities but not the demonstrations (p = .02). Qualitative data analysis corroborated these findings.

This research indicates that engineering design activities while beneficial for promoting attitudes towards engineering and making science learning fun and enjoyable for students, are not sufficient by themselves to promote conceptual change in science understanding. A bridge is needed to connect the design activities with the correct scientific conceptions, and in this study, that bridge has been demonstrated to be a series of well-crafted and research-based demonstrations that allow students to make substantial gains in scientific understanding.

Schnittka, C., & Bell, R., & Richards, L. (2009, June), Encouraging Conceptual Change In Science Through The Use Of Engineering Design In Middle School Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--5020

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