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Increasing Conceptual Understanding and Student Motivation in Undergraduate Dynamics Using Inquiry-Based Learning Activities

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session II

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Brian P. Self California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Brian Self obtained his B.S. and M.S. degrees in Engineering Mechanics from Virginia Tech, and his Ph.D. in Bioengineering from the University of Utah. He worked in the Air Force Research Laboratories before teaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy for seven years. Brian has taught in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo since 2006. During the 2011-2012 academic year he participated in a professor exchange, teaching at the Munich University of Applied Sciences. His engineering education interests include collaborating on the Dynamics Concept Inventory, developing model-eliciting activities in mechanical engineering courses, inquiry-based learning in mechanics, and design projects to help promote adapted physical activities. Other professional interests include aviation physiology and biomechanics.

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James M Widmann California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Jim Widmann is a professor of mechanical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He received his Ph.D. in 1994 from Stanford University and has served as a Fulbright Scholar at Kathmandu University it Nepal. At Cal Poly, he coordinates the departments industry sponsored senior project class and teaches mechanics and design courses. He also conducts research in the areas of creative design, machine design, fluid power control, and engineering education.

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Gina C Adam National Institute of Microtechnologies, Romania Orcid 16x16

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Gina C. Adam is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for R&D in Microtechnologies in Romania and a visiting scholar at EPFL in Switzerland with the financial support of the EU Marie Curie individual fellowship. Apart from her work in memristive circuits for novel computing, she is also interested in content knowledge acquisition in engineering education, particularly semiconductor physics and nanotechnology. She has been involved in a variety of other projects related to engineering and engineering education: value-added manufacturing (Dr. Katie Whitefoot), taxonomy of engineering education (Dr. Cynthia Finelli), pioneers in engineering education (Dr.Cynthia Atman) and inquiry-based learning in mechanics (Dr. Brian Self).

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To date, our research team has created five hands-on inquiry-based learning activities (IBLAs) to engage students in conceptual learning in engineering dynamics. The activities allow the students to experiment with physical objects similar to those they might see in a homework problem, i.e. weights on a pulley, hollow and solid cylinders rolling down a ramp, gyroscopes spinning, and strings wrapped around spools pulled gently across a surface. The scenarios are designed to produce non-intuitive results, resulting in cognitive conflict. In this way, the activities intentionally challenge students to rethink their conceptual frameworks. The IBLA follows a series of different physical cases, each of which utilizes a predict-observe-explain cycle. We first ask students to make an individual prediction (often using an online quiz system) about a physical scenario, and then allow them to discuss this prediction in teams of 3-4 members. After recording any changed predictions after their discussion, students then conduct the “experiment”, allowing the physical world to be the authority instead of the instructor. Following prompts on a team worksheet, students then try to explain what they have observed using the principles of dynamics. Multiple (but similar) scenarios are then presented, often accompanied by instructor explanations and class discussion. As part of this research, we identify the concepts used by the students as they piece together their observations in order to understand if meaningful learning is occurring. We also try to pinpoint how they have constructed their understanding and whether it is from observations in the world around them, learned in an introductory course prerequisite to dynamics, or something they have constructed by themselves using the information learned in the dynamics class in which they are currently enrolled. If a misconception is identified, we aim to tailor the activity to address and correct it. The overriding goal of this research is to provide students with a coherent framework that pushes them to better conceptual understanding. Assessment has been done in a variety of ways: analysis of video-taped think-alouds in which individual students experience the IBLAs, pre and post scores on the Dynamics Concept Inventory (DCI), performance on transfer problems, subjective questionnaires, and performance on their predictions as they walk through multiple cases of the IBLA. On a target DCI question, students improved from 31.3% correct (pre) to 89.8% (post) after doing the rolling cylinders IBLA – similar results have been obtained for the mass-pulley IBLA. Additionally, students have self-reported that the activities improved their learning (4.4/5 on a Likert survey) and that they were motivating (4.2/5). Additionally, students who have used class time (4 out of 28 50 minute periods) perform slightly higher (though no statically significant difference) on a traditional problem-based final examination than those in classes who do not incorporate IBLAs.

Self, B. P., & Widmann, J. M., & Adam, G. C. (2016, June), Increasing Conceptual Understanding and Student Motivation in Undergraduate Dynamics Using Inquiry-Based Learning Activities Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25668

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