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First Year Engineering Students’ Initials Ideas For Solving Complex Problems

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

FPD4 - Teaching Methods for First Year Students

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.613.1 - 13.613.10



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Paper Authors


Sean Brophy Purdue University

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Sean P. Brophy, PhD. is an assistant professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Dr. Brophy is a learning scientist and engineer; his research focuses on the development of learners’ ability to solve complex problems in engineering, mathematics and science contexts. He continues to work on identifying new opportunities to use technology to support learning, formative assessment, and instruction.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

First Year Engineering Students’ Initials Ideas for Solving Complex Problems Abstract

This study is part of a larger ongoing study to explore the use of mini authentic challenges as anchors for inquiry in large lecture sections of first year engineering students. Anchored inquiry into authentic, complex problems continues to grow as an effective instructional method for developing engineering problem solving and technical skills. As a precursor to lecture, students log onto an online module that presents a challenge statement. The online module provides a text field for students to generate initial ideas about how to solve the challenge and generate questions about what more they need to learn. Then they review multiple perspectives provided by experts and compare these ideas with their initial thoughts. This generative experience is designed to orient students with the relevant information presented in lecture and with questions about what they need to learn in lecture. Some challenges have students evaluate complex systems as part of the process of generating ideas. This descriptive study explores what novice engineering students notice in complex systems relative to a problem solving goal. In this case the challenge was a troubleshooting activity that could be solved with a simple adjustment to one of the components. However, many students choose to make the problem a redesign problem of a completely different area of the system. These results illustrate that first year engineering students can approach complex challenges prior to instruction. They can identify the underlying problems based on their general understanding of the structure and function. Their lack of understanding of the how to determine the behavior of the system may be the cause of their inability to appropriately define the problem. The range of students’ responses can be analyzed as formative feedback to support instructors’ refinement of lectures to meet the needs of the students.

Keywords Inductive learning environments Formative assessment Technology mediated learning environments Large Lecture First Year Engineering


First Year Engineering (FYE) students are academically bright yet demonstrate a large variance in experience with engineering problem solving. Specifically, students can manipulate mathematical operations for specific cases, but they have difficulty using data or equations to evaluate the performance of a complex system. In addition, they demonstrate difficulties representing complex systems in a way that supports their comprehension of a problem and the identification of potential solutions for a given situation. These specifics are important when we think about new pedagogical approaches to learning that involve learners starting instruction with a complex challenge. This paper presents results from a descriptive study designed to

Brophy, S. (2008, June), First Year Engineering Students’ Initials Ideas For Solving Complex Problems Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4337

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