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First-Year Engineering Students’ Experiences and Perceptions Viewed Through the Lens of Transdisciplinary Knowledge and Threshold Concepts

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

First-Year Programs Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Gerald Gallego Tembrevilla McMaster University Orcid 16x16

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Gerald Tembrevilla completed his PhD in science (physics) education in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada in July 2020.

During his PhD program, he completed several research fellowships in STEM education and technology design as UBC Public Scholar Initiative Awardee, Mitacs-Canada and UBC Go Global Scholar at the University of California-Los Angeles, University of Cambridge in England, and ETH-Zurich.

He worked as a postdoctoral fellow for the PIVOT, an interdisciplinary blue-print to transform undergraduate engineering students’ learning experience in the Faculty of Engineering at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada until June 2021.

In July 2021, he will take the post of Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at “The Mount” (Mount Saint Vincent University), Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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Susan Nesbit P.Eng. University of British Columbia, Vancouver

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As a Professor of Teaching in Civil Engineering, I have lead the development of sustainability curriculum and taught several courses, at all levels, that introduce engineering students to sustainability engineering concepts. I have co-authored papers and presentations in sustainability engineering education research. I am also a trained Instructional Skills Workshop facilitator, and have developed and/or co-facilitated several faculty development workshops, including UBC’s three-day course design institute, and, under the guidance of Bill Oakes, the one-day ASEE Service Learning workshop. I am a trained peer reviewer of teaching, and have over 10 years experience providing both formative and summative peer reviews. Currently, in addition to being curious about how best to train engineering students to work effectively in transdisciplinary teams, I am working with the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative to embed natural asset management techniques into engineering education.

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Peter M Ostafichuk P.Eng. University of British Columbia, Vancouver

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Dr. Peter M. Ostafichuk is a professor of teaching in Mechanical Engineering at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He teaches design and other topics in mechanical engineering, and is the Chair of First Year Engineering. He has extensive experience in Team-Based Learning (TBL), and he has authored books and papers on TBL and engineering design.

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Naoko Ellis P.Eng. University of British Columbia, Vancouver Orcid 16x16

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Naoko Ellis is a Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She holds a Ph.D. (UBC, 2003); M.E.Sc. (Western, 1993); and a B.Sc. (Honours, Waterloo, 1991). She is a member of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC. Her expertise lies in the area of multiphase reaction engineering with emphasis on biomass utilization. Some current projects include: biomass gasification and pyrolysis; CO2 capture, including chemical looping combustion; pyrolysis product utilization; and biofuels. She is also interested in sustainability education and transdisciplinary learning.

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Motivation: This complete research paper involves an in-depth qualitative analysis on how learning interventions in two consecutive first-year Introduction to Engineering courses supported first-year engineering students’ development of three transdisciplinary knowledge domains which we call as metacognition, systems thinking, and emphatic thinking. It is part of our larger study that investigates the growth of first-year engineering students’ transdisciplinary knowledge using a mixed qualitative and quantitative methods.

Background: The education literature on transdisciplinarity (Augsburg, 2014; Derry & Fischer, 2005; McGregor, 2017) acknowledges that generally, current higher education practice does not yet effectively train students as empathic and systems thinkers, nor to practice metacognition. To align with the primary aim of First-Year Programs Division (FPD) to advance first-year engineering education through research and innovation in curriculum and pedagogy, this research examines how learning interventions in engineering programs support students to acquire transdisciplinarity. The examination employs the lens of transdisciplinary knowledge, a combination of our synthesis of transdisciplinary and sustainability literature and model of empathy in engineering (Walther, Miller, & Sochacka, 2017), and threshold concepts (Meyer, Land, & Baillie, 2010). We look at transdisciplinary knowledge lens as an integration of personal characteristics and abilities of students and examine these characteristics and abilities as threshold concepts by assigning them a state of liminality (students’ journey of learning transformation composed of varying levels of pre-conceived, partial, and emergent understanding, ideas, and experiences).

Design/Method: Course 100 and 101 are first year Introduction to Engineering courses spanning two semesters. They are design-focused and flipped-classroom core courses offered annually to approximately 1000 students. The coverage of this study is the academic year 2018-2019. A week after pre- and post-course surveys were completed, separate semi-structured interviews (Elliot, Fairweather, Olsen, & Pampaka, 2016) were conducted among groups of students, using probing and open-ended questions on transdisciplinary knowledge. Separate focus group discussions for studio instructors and TAs’ with different probing and open-ended questions on transdisciplinary knowledge allowed the instructional team to discuss their communal experiences, their perspectives, and beliefs (Krueger & Casey, 2000) on students in their studio classes.

Seventy students joined in both pre- and post-course semi-structured interviews. Eleven instructors and TAs participated in the pre-course focus group discussion, while only five joined in the post-course discussion. The composition of the participants differed in the pre- and post-course interviews and focus group discussions.

Student interviews, and focus group discussion with the instructors and TAs, were conducted by a graduate student not involved in teaching first-year engineering students. All pre-post course transcripts were transcribed and member-checked prior to analysis. Four coders of varying specializations (STEM education, engineering, education, and economics) performed inductive coding derived from a priori theory (Flick, 2002). Using threshold concepts, the coders developed five levels of liminality to describe both students’ transdisciplinary knowledge, and instructors’ and TAs’ observations of students learning of transdisciplinary knowledge concepts. Each code has corresponding distinct indicators. For example, students’ statements were coded as preliminal if they signified no prior knowledge or first encounter, while liminal indicates confusion or conflict in understanding, etc. The indicators were used by four coders to identify levels of: (a) students’ self-assessed views of transdisciplinary knowledge as applied in engineering during pre and post-course semi-structured interviews; and (b) instructors and TAs’ assessments of students’ transdisciplinary knowledge as manifested and observed during the class, pre- and post-course, respectively.

Findings: Qualitative analysis reveals that students manifested the three transdisciplinary knowledge domains as narrated by the students themselves, and observed and perceived by instructors and TAs, pre and post, respectively. We categorize students’ manifestations of metacognitive development, systems thinking, and emphatic thinking, pre and post, by differentiating them either as transformative or integrative learning with corresponding level of liminality. The key experiences and perspectives of students, TAs, and instructors, pre and post, imply that the learning interventions supported the development of students’ transdisciplinary knowledge. The highlight of these key experiences and perspectives, pre and post, describe students as if they enter a different level of unstable “liminal space” where they may oscillate between pre-conceived and emergent ideas and experiences (Cousin, 2006), as they encounter unfamiliar discourse that might forge new understanding (transformative) (Land, 2015). This process establishes new connections, applications, thinking, and practices (integrative) (Land, Rattray, & Vivian, 2014) as students navigate their first-year engineering courses. We will expand the discussions of our findings by showing that both the first-year engineering student-participants and the instructional activities were being transformed, integrated, and marked by a change in students’ use of discourse, conceptual schema, application, perspective, etc. (Meyer et al., 2010) about transdisciplinary knowledge.

Tembrevilla, G. G., & Nesbit, S., & Ostafichuk, P. M., & Ellis, N. (2021, July), First-Year Engineering Students’ Experiences and Perceptions Viewed Through the Lens of Transdisciplinary Knowledge and Threshold Concepts Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37196

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