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Learning Through Reverse Engineering

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Learning By Doing in Chemical Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Chemical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.838.1 - 15.838.7



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Paper Authors

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Shannon O'Brien Manhattan College

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J.Patrick Abulencia Manhattan College

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

Learning through Reverse Engineering


Engineering students have always practiced the skill of problem solving by repetition. Professors would assign problem after problem for students to attempt, struggle, and hopefully learn. Although practice through repetition is a viable method to improve student ability, many still have difficulty.

Cognitive psychologists have identified several traits of “expert” problem solvers. First, experts are known to be skilled in recognizing familiar patterns. Second, they mentally represent problems largely in terms of underlying principles. Finally, experts plan solution strategies, and detect constraints given in the problem statement. To incorporate these ideas into engineering education, a project called “Reverse Engineering” was created, and employed in a sophomore fluids mechanics class. No different than taking a piece of equipment apart to better understand its operation, students can apply the same approach to chemical engineering problems. Briefly, students were asked to generate their own problems related to a concept discussed during class, and present the solution by breaking it down into its fundamental parts. We hypothesize that students would improve their problem solving ability by dissecting problems in this manner, through cognition of underlying principles and patterns used in working towards a solution.

To this end, two student populations with similar GPAs were assessed over consecutive years. The first group (Group 1) participated in the standard curriculum, while the second group (Group 2) participated in the standard curriculum with the addition of the Reverse Engineering assignment. This assignment was executed between the second and third exams of the semester. To establish the “pretreatment” condition, scores from the second exam were compared between both groups. Statistical hypothesis testing indicate that there is no significant difference between them (i.e. Group #1 mean = 78.32, while Group #2 mean = 81.94). In contrast, comparison of the third and final exams between the two groups reveals a statistically significant difference (i.e. Group #1 mean = 73.8 and Group #2 mean = 83.02 for the third exam and Group #1 mean = 74.15 and Group #2 mean = 83.05 for the final exam) translating to an increase of 12.5% and 14.7% respectively. It is noteworthy to mention that the exams used in this study typically did not produce significantly different scores when administered in previous years, thus allowing us to conclude that they have a similar level of difficulty. The results imply that students who supplemented their learning with the Reverse Engineering technique performed better in a problem based exam compared to those who solely practiced by repetition. Taken together, assignments such as Reverse Engineering can easily be incorporated into any course to help students improve their problem solving skills.


In the most basic sense, professors teaching a fundamental engineering course will introduce a topic, demonstrate its application, and assign problems which require its utilization. Through the repetition of these problems, students become familiar with and begin to recognize patterns that indicate when to apply particular concepts. In this way, students are confined to the lower levels

O'Brien, S., & Abulencia, J. (2010, June), Learning Through Reverse Engineering Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--15958

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