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Investigating Design Cognition during Brainstorming Tasks with Freshmen and Senior Engineering Students using Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Understanding Student Development in Design

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Tripp Shealy Virginia Tech

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Tripp Shealy is an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. His research is at the intersection of cognitive psychology and engineering decision making for sustainability.

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Jacob R. Grohs Virginia Tech

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Jacob Grohs is an Assistant Professor in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech with Affiliate Faculty status in Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and the Learning Sciences and Technologies at Virginia Tech. He holds degrees in Engineering Mechanics (BS, MS) and in Educational Psychology (MAEd, PhD).

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Mo Hu Virginia tech


Darren K. Maczka Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Darren Maczka is a Ph.D. candidate in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. His background is in control systems engineering and information systems design and he received his B.S. in Computer Systems Engineering from The University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has several years of experience teaching and developing curricula in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech.

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Robin Panneton Virginia Tech

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1981-1985 Ph.D. Developmental Psychology; University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC
1978-1981 M.A. Developmental Psychology ; University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC
1974-1978 B.S. PsychologyUniversity of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI

My research interests revolve around issues relevant to infants’ perception of information that leads to their emerging communicative skills from birth to toddlerhood. These research questions involve probing aspects of infants’ learning about objects, about people, and about themselves in relation to objects and people. I am particularly interested in how multiple sources of dynamic sensory information drive infants’ attention to and learning about the world in which they live and their ability to communicate about it.

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Design cognition includes the formulation of problems, the generation of solutions, and the utilization of design process strategies. Here, we measure the cognitive load to generate solutions to engineering challenges for sustainability using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). fNIRS can be used to study brain activity in more natural environments, while also providing better spatial resolution than EEG and better temporal resolution than fMRI. It therefore offers new opportunities for exploring how brain activity relates to engineering design. While there is literature describing which brain regions support particular cognitive functions, far less is known about how these are developed through learning and how they support design thinking. By measuring hemodynamic responses during brainstorming tasks with freshmen (n=14) and senior (n=9) engineering students we find a significant difference (p<0.001) in the cognitive activation required to generate solutions. Freshmen engineering students show 5 times greater activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (known to involve working memory, cognitive flexibility, planning, inhibition, and abstract reasoning) compared to seniors. While seniors show an average of 10 times increase in activation in the premotor cortex (known to be involved in the management of uncertainty, control of behavior, and self-reflection in decision making). The number of solutions generated was also significant (p=0.032). Freshmen generated 5.6 solutions on average during the brainstorming activity while seniors developed 4.1. In many ways, this initial work serves as a proof of concept in using neuroimaging to study the processes involved in engineering design. Through a better understanding of these processes, we can begin to explore specific elements of the engineering curriculum that may contribute to student ability to manage complexity inherent in engineering design problems. We hope this interdisciplinary study integrating engineering education and neuroscience generates conversation about other engineering design tasks and settings, in which, fNIRS can be effectively used as a new tool.

Shealy, T., & Grohs, J. R., & Hu, M., & Maczka, D. K., & Panneton, R. (2017, June), Investigating Design Cognition during Brainstorming Tasks with Freshmen and Senior Engineering Students using Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28584

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