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Identifying and Addressing Student Difficulties in Engineering Statics

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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

Teaching Statics

Tagged Division


Page Count


Page Numbers

22.792.1 - 22.792.14



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Paper Authors


Andrea Brose Hamburg University of Technology

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Andrea Brose earned her Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. From 1999 to 2008, she was in the Department of Mathematics at UCLA where she taught undergraduate math, led and developed the mathematics teaching assistant and faculty training program, and contributed to other aspects of academic administration. Since 2009, she is involved in a project on "Active Learning in Engineering Education" at Hamburg University of Technology.

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Christian H. Kautz Hamburg University of Technology

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Christian H. Kautz received his doctorate degree from the University of Washington for research on student understanding of hydrostatics and thermal physics and was involved in the curriculum development projects of the Physics Education Group. After teaching physics at Syracuse University for three years, he moved to Hamburg University of Technology where he has since carried out research on student understanding in various introductory engineering subjects, such as Engineering Mechanics, Electrical Engineering, and Engineering Thermodynamics.

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Student Understanding of Basic Concepts in Engineering Statics – Part I: Investigation of Student DifficultiesIt is widely known that for many students, typical introductory courses are not successful ingenerating a thorough understanding of basic science and engineering concepts. Changes in theinstructional settings, such as incorporating more active learning formats, may help enhancelearning outcomes, but effective instruction in introductory science and engineering may requiremore than the mere adoption of the proper learning format. Educational research based in thesedisciplines has identified specific conceptual and reasoning difficulties that often preventstudents from developing a functional understanding of many of the topics taught in thesecourses. There is evidence that instructional materials that foster active learning and take intoaccount such difficulties are more likely to improve student learning.In Part I of this presentation, we report on an ongoing research study on student understanding ofmechanics concepts and principles in the context of an introductory engineering statics course.Motivated by results from a standard diagnostic test 1, we have used interviews to identify andanalyze frequent difficulties with a number of topics, including the concepts of forces, couples,and equivalent systems.Many of the students interviewed tended to consider force systems as equivalent even if they didnot result in equal net forces or net moments. Specifically, students often substituted forces forcouples or vice versa, as has been reported previously.2 In addition, we found that some studentsassociated a couple with an object’s tendency to rotate around a particular point and thereforefailed to see the equivalence of two couples that are applied at different locations.When asked to analyze real-world objects, students also displayed considerable difficulty inidentifying couples and in recognizing the implications of a particular choice of system,including the idea that a prediction about observable quantities should be independent of thatchoice. We suspect that this may be caused in part by the failure to interpret forces and couplesas interactions between two objects, as well as by a more general uneasiness with the relationshipbetween real-world objects and mechanical models.The results from this study are being used to guide the development of instructional materials aswill be illustrated in Part II of this presentation.1Steif, P.S., and J.A. Dantzler, “A Statics Concept Inventory: Development and Psychometric Analysis,” Journal ofEngineering Education, Vol. 94, 363-371 (2005).2 Steif, P.S., and M.A. Hansen, “Comparisons Between Performances In A Statics Concept Inventory and CourseExaminations,” International Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 22, 1070-1076 (2006), and Steif, P.S., and J.L. Newcomer, “Student Thinking about Static Equilibrium: Insights from Written Explanations toa Concept Question,” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 97, 481-490 (2008).

Brose, A., & Kautz, C. H. (2011, June), Identifying and Addressing Student Difficulties in Engineering Statics Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18073

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