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High School Students’ Cognitive Activity While Solving Authentic Problems through Engineering Design Processes

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session Design

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.663.1 - 23.663.37



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Paper Authors


Amy Wilson-Lopez Utah State University - Teacher Education and Leadership

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Dr. Amy Alexandra Wilson, assistant professor at Utah State University, studies adolescent literacy in engineering and science.

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Emma R. Smith Utah State University


Daniel L Householder Utah State University

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Dr. Daniel L. Householder is a research professor in the Department of Engineering Education, Utah State University.

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Authentic, Situated Engineering Design Challenges for High School StudentsThe purpose of this multiple case study (Stake, 2006) was to identify the engineering designprocesses of two groups of twelfth-graders as they worked together to develop solutions to‘authentic, situated’ design challenges. By ‘authentic,’ we mean challenges that impacted realclients who were in need of solutions. The first challenge entailed improving a bathing transfersystem for a man who had muscular dystrophy and needed a device that his caregiver could useto help him in and out of the bathtub; the second challenge entailed improving a waterdistribution system for an orphanage in Uganda. Both designs were shared with authenticaudiences: the first was shared with the client himself and with the technician who built theoriginal device and its improved versions; in the second case, the revised designs were sharedwith the faculty sponsor of the Engineers without Borders team of students who repeatedlyvisited the orphanage to improve the water supply system..By ‘situated,’ we mean that the design challenges were situated in the adolescents’ interests, aswell as situated within physical settings and within ill-structured conceptual domains thatapproximated those inhabited by engineers. In order to situate the design challenges in thecontext of adolescents’ interests, we first interviewed the individual students to determine theirinterests, relevant background experiences, anticipated career trajectories, and the range ofengineering challenge issues about which they felt strongly. For example, one group of studentsall expressed an interest in helping people with physical disabilities as part of their careers, whilethe second group of students lived in farming communities, helped their grandparents on theirfarms, and/or identified lack of access to clean water in Africa as a pressing global issue that theywished to address. These challenges were also ‘situated’ as much as possible in terms of theirphysical settings, which included the assistive technology lab where the technician built theoriginal bathing transfer system and continued to improve the design. Finally, design challengeswere also ‘situated’ in the sense that they were situated in the types of ill-structured problems(Jonassen, 1997) faced by engineers.Research on learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991) suggests that ‘situated’ problem solving isdifferent from problem solving in decontextualized settings in schools or laboratories. In‘situated’ settings, the presence of authentic audiences, purposes, tools, and materials introducesa new and different set of constraints and motivations in contrast to individual motivations tosolve problems set in purely abstract, controlled, theoretical spaces. We sought to discover thetwelfth-graders’ design processes as they worked to solve these authentic, situated challengesthrough collecting three types of data: individual pre- and post-design interviews, video-recordings of their conversations and actions as they sought to solve the problem, and therepresentations they produced while solving the designs. Constant comparative analysis (Strauss& Corbin, 2008) revealed that the ‘situated’ aspects of the design process, such as the availabletools and materials, as well as clarifying conversations with the clients, were significantinfluences in shaping the design process.

Wilson-Lopez, A., & Smith, E. R., & Householder, D. L. (2013, June), High School Students’ Cognitive Activity While Solving Authentic Problems through Engineering Design Processes Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19677

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