June 26, 2011
June 26, 2011
June 29, 2011
Educational Research and Methods
22.688.1 - 22.688.7
Engineering Students’ Conceptions of ModelingAbstractMany courses in an engineering curriculum focus on teaching students “engineeringfundamentals.” Engineering fundamentals can include many different disciplinary topics, but oneunderlying emphasis in engineering is to develop analytic skills that are rooted in basicmathematical and scientific principles. Typical engineering courses engage students in deriving,using, and applying theories, equations, and models in a variety of problem solving contexts. Inour work we explore students’ conceptions of modeling, since modeling is a pervasive feature ofan engineering curriculum. Modeling provides students with an understanding of how to developpurposeful representations of engineering concepts and solutions.Starfield, Smith, and Bleloch (1994) suggested that there are two categories of models:descriptive and predictive. Descriptive models represent what is expected, while predictivemodels represent theoretical behaviors. Each type of model has intended uses. Our workinvestigates students’ ability to flexibly respond and adaptively apply appropriate models in thecontext of particular engineering design situations, and documents students’ conceptions of therange of uses for models in design.The following component of our study investigates 56 senior biomedical engineering students’conceptions of modeling through their responses to three broad questions: 1. Describe different ways to model a design idea or solution. 2. In what ways can models be useful/helpful in the design process? 3. List instances (in your courses or through personal experiences) where you used modeling.Student responses were overwhelmingly focused on descriptive models. Over 80% (45 students)of the students in the sample described a model as a physical representation i.e. sketches,drawings, mock-ups, or prototypes. The majority of students (57%; 32 students) also madereference to using computer models, but for the purpose of constructing a 3D-model rather than apredicting the behavior of a system.Less than 2% (9 students) mentioned using equations or mathematical models to model a designidea or solution. Of those 9 students, only 3 provided an instance where they used mathematicalmodeling. The results suggest that when senior students hear or see the words “model” or“modeling,” their inclination is to focus on descriptive models for the purpose of visualization(54%; 30 students) and testing (weaknesses & strengths) (54%; 30 students) rather thanprediction (11%; 6 students). Modeling is a crucial step in the engineering design process;however, our initial findings suggest that students often do not have very nuanced conceptions ofthe full power and use of models.We believe that the descriptive-centric conception of modeling shown in this study is more thanjust semantics. Our results suggest that students are developing specific notions of modeling inlarge part based on their course experiences. This suggestion reflects not just what is present inthe curriculum but rather, what is absent or tacit. Our findings hopefully will be used as a basisfor changes in the way modeling is presented and taught so that predictive models become morehighly associated with what is conceived as modeling.
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