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Exploring Senior Engineering Students’ Conceptions of Modeling

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Modeling and Problem-Solving

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.688.1 - 22.688.7



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Paper Authors


Adam R. Carberry Arizona State University Orcid 16x16

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Adam R. Carberry is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the College of Technology and Innovation, Department of Engineering at Arizona State University. He earned a B.S. in Materials Science Engineering from Alfred University, and received his M.S. and Ph.D., both from Tufts University, in Chemistry and Engineering Education respectively. His research interests include conceptions of modeling in engineering, engineering epistemological beliefs, and engineering service-learning.

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Ann F. McKenna Arizona State University

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Ann McKenna is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering in the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University (ASU). Prior to joining ASU she served as a program officer at the National Science Foundation in the Division of Undergraduate Education and was on the faculty of the Segal Design Institute and Department of Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University. Dr. McKenna’s research focuses on understanding the cognitive and social processes of design, design teaching and learning, the role of adaptive expertise in design and innovation, teaching approaches of engineering faculty, and the diffusion and impact of curricular innovations. Dr. McKenna received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering from Drexel University and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.

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Robert A. Linsenmeier Northwestern University


Jennifer Cole Northwestern University Orcid 16x16

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Jennifer Cole is the Assistant Chair in Chemical and Biological Engineering in the Robert R.
McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University. Dr. Cole’s
primary teaching is in capstone design, and her research interest are in engineering design

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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.

Carberry, A. R., & McKenna, A. F., & Linsenmeier, R. A., & Cole, J. (2011, June), Exploring Senior Engineering Students’ Conceptions of Modeling Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17969

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