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Engineering Uncertainty: A qualitative study on the way middle school teachers incorporate, manage and leverage the uncertainty of engineering design task

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering Division: Student Reflection, Self-Perception, Misconceptions, and Uncertainty

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education Division

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Paper Authors


Beau Vezino University of Arizona

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Beau R. Vezino is a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona’s College of Education. His focus is engineering and science education. Beau currently teaches the science/engineering methods course for pre-service teachers and works on several related research projects. Beau is certified teacher and holds a MS in Education in Curriculum and Instruction (2009) and a BS in Mechanical Engineering (2005). Beau’s research focus involves K-12 teacher education related to engineering. He is the curriculum writer and project coordinator for ENGR101MS.

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Uncertainty is a pervasive aspect of everyday life. As people make decisions and solve problems in their professional and day-to-day lives, they continually face elements of uncertainty. However, schools rarely provide learning opportunities or environments that allow for uncertainty. This robs students of the chance to learn from uncertainty and leaves them ill equipped to deal with and overcome uncertainty. Previous research has shown that teachers and curriculum tend to minimize or avoid uncertainty because it can increase anxiety, reduce classroom control and authority, and is perceived to lower the quality of instruction. Consequently, teachers have been found to overwhelmingly focus on familiar, well-structured or procedural tasks that are low in both ambiguity and risk.

With the integration of engineering in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), uncertainty, which is an inherent aspect of engineering, may finally play a larger role in the K-12 education system. This change represents an opportunity and challenge for teachers as they help students manage uncertainty while simultaneously managing their own uncertainty. To date, few researchers have addressed uncertainty as it relates to engineering design tasks, and fewer still have directly observed what teachers do as they manage and navigate the unpredictability and uncertainty associated with the integration of engineering in K-12 classrooms.

In this exploratory case study, I conducted an in-depth investigation of one middle school science teacher, Janice (pseudonym), as she faces the uncertainty associated with integrating a newly adopted engineering unit into her classroom. Specifically, I examined the types of uncertainty experienced by the teacher and students, the sources of the ambiguity, and the behaviors and strategies used to manage the uncertainty.

To develop an in-depth understanding of Janice’s experience and interpretations, this study employed a series of ongoing in-depth, semi-structured interviews and naturalistic observations. With knowledge base and complex adaptive systems as theoretical frameworks, this study utilized an inductive and interpretive process to analyze the data.

Findings from this study showed that the ways uncertainty transpired in the classroom paralleled to the uncertainty faced by professional engineers. Uncertainty was observed as it related to the complexity and unpredictability of designing physical artifacts, managing the competing demand trade-offs innate in developing the “best” solution, and the inconsistency and imperfection of testing the resulting data. These elements of uncertainty transpired, in part, due to Janice recognition of uncertainty as an inherent and beneficial part of engineering. As a result of this perspective, Janice strove to incorporate, managed and even leveraged the uncertainty by taking a student-centered approach that actively promoted autonomy, learning through a process of failure and redesign; and allowing for continuous discussion, negotiation and reflection.

The results of this study can be used to better prepare and support educators to teach engineering in a manner that incorporates and leverages uncertainty in a manageable way. Additional research is needed to confirm these results and further investigate how K-12 teachers interpret and manage uncertainty while teaching students to design solutions for ill-structured engineering problems.

Vezino, B. (2016, June), Engineering Uncertainty: A qualitative study on the way middle school teachers incorporate, manage and leverage the uncertainty of engineering design task Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26677

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