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Exploring Student Computational Practices in Solving Complex Engineering Design Problems

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Student Learning, Problem Solving, & Critical Thinking 1

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.582.1 - 24.582.13



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Paper Authors


Oluwatosin Alabi Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Oluwatosin (Tosin) Alabi is a graduate researcher in Computer and Information Technology. Currently, she is conducting research in High Performance Computing (HPC) and Data Analytics. Specifically, her research is focused on the use of parallel computational tools in supporting big data problem solving in bioscience and information technology.

She holds a Masters in Computer and Information Technology, where her thesis focus on the role of computational tools and representations in engineering education. And also holds a B.E. degree in Electrical Engineering from The City College of New York where she worked as a research assistant in the are of Remote Sensing and Atmospheric Science.

Tosin is also a graduate of the General Electric Edison Engineering Leadership Development Program (EEDP). During her time at General Electric (GE) her roles included working as an Electronic Component Quality Engineer for GE Switchgear Systems.

Her research interest include: High Performance Computing, Data Analytics, and STEM Education

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Alejandra J. Magana Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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R. Edwin Garcia Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Exploring Student Computational Practices in Solving Complex Engineering Design Problems This study explores students’ experiences of computational practices to informtheir problem-solving process to accomplish a design task. In this paper we definecomputational practices as a system of activities carried out to create symbolicrepresentations, simplifications of systems or artifacts that delete, maintain and distortaspects of a phenomenon in order to support scientific inquiry and design activity.Computational tools are becoming more useful pedagogical tools because of their abilityto create and display multiple representational forms, often interactively and as a functionof time. Specifically, representational artifacts such as graphs, visual models, andsimulations of physical or non-physical phenomena can serve as tools in guiding inquiryand constructing solutions in engineering design. However, there is a limited amount ofresearch that describes the computational practices of engineering students. In particular,there is a need to investigate the differences in the way engineering students’ practicesand the way they use computational tools for developing solutions to complex designproblems beyond the first year of engineering.The research question in this particular study is: What are computational practices ofupper level engineering students for solving complex design problems? And how arethese practices implemented as part of their design process and/or supporting student’sconceptual understanding of course material? Activity theory is used as the theoretical framework for this study. Learning anddesign activities always contain artifacts (i.e., models, data, equations, procedures) thathelp individuals accomplish the goals of a particular task. Lev Vygostky’s ActivityTheory is described as consisting of three elements; the subject, mediating tools and thetask objective or outcome. In this case study, our experiment was developed such thattwo groups of participants were required to employ different computational resources(e.g., one group used a simulation while the other used a written analytical solution). Thegroups, consisting of about 5 to 8 students, were self-assigned a design problem thatinvolved similar concepts but using different analytical tools. This division of the groupsallowed for us to describe student problem solving process as a function of thecomputation resources made available to them. The qualitative component of the studyincludes an in-depth task analysis of students’ solutions (analytical or computational) andthe artifacts they produced. Participants of this study were drawn from a population of 24first and second year graduate students from a materials science engineering course titledIntroduction to Rechargeable Batteries. The final draft of this paper will describe students’ use of representations (e.g.,graphical, iconic, algebraic) as cognitive tools for processing domain-relevant knowledgeand strategies for formulating solutions. In addition, the differences in students’ use ofrepresentations using hand-written and coded methods of computing will be highlightedand discussed. The results of this study will be beneficial in expanding the current workin the role of representations for conceptual change in engineering and will provideinsights into how students process knowledge when provided with simulation tools andcomputational methods for solving design problems.

Alabi, O., & Magana, A. J., & Garcia, R. E. (2014, June), Exploring Student Computational Practices in Solving Complex Engineering Design Problems Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20473

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2014 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015