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Making Sense of Nanoscale Phenomena: A Proposed Model of Knowledge and Thinking

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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

Learning From Experts

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1038.1 - 22.1038.16



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Paper Authors


Alejandra J. Magana Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Alejandra J. Magana is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Technology and the School of Engineering Education, at Purdue University. Alejandra's research interest are focused on identifying how computational tools and methods can support the understanding of complex phenomena for scientific discovery and for inquiry learning.

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Ruth A. Streveler Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Ruth A. Streveler is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Before coming to Purdue she spent 12 years at Colorado School of Mines, where she was the founding Director of the Center for Engineering Education. Dr. Streveler earned a B.A. in Biology from Indiana University, Bloomington, M.S. in Zoology from the Ohio State University, and Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Hawaii, Mānoa. Her primary research interests are investigating students’ understanding of difficult concepts in engineering science and helping engineering faculty conduct rigorous research in engineering education.

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Natalie Barrett Purdue University

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Natalie Barrett is an Engineering Education Ph.D. student at Purdue University and is interested in Engineering Learning Transfer. Natalie received a B.S.M.E. from Florida State University, a M.S.M.E. from Georgia Institute of Technology, and a M.B.A. from Indiana University. She has taught at Wentworth Institute of Technology as an Adjunct Professor for College Physics I. She has also worked in industry at Pratt & Whitney for several years and served in roles such as Integrated Product Team Leader and Affordability and Risk Manager for the F135 Engine Program.

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Making sense of nanoscale phenomena: A proposed model of knowledge and thinkingBackground and motivationThe ability to explore the physical world at the nanoscale has opened up a wealth ofresearch opportunities. But making sense of this tiny world brings with it giganticchallenges. Life is experienced at the macroscale, so learners are not able to buildintuitive knowledge about this invisible world.If prior experience cannot be called upon to make sense of this exciting new world, whatkind of knowledge and thinking styles are necessary to understand nanoscalephenomena? This study was motivated by the desire to begin to answer this question.MethodsResearchers at a large nanoscale engineering research center in the Midwest were invitedto be interviewed to uncover their ideas about what it takes to make sense of nanoscalephenomena. Seven researchers volunteered to participate in this study. Semi-structuredinterviews were used to probe participants’ ideas about what knowledge and thinking isneeded to understand nanoscale phenomena. Interviews were recorded, transcribed andcoded. Grounded theory was used to analyze the data. Human subjects procedures werefollowed.ResultsSeveral themes emerged from the data. In the full paper these themes will be illustratedwith quotes from the interviews. Limited space necessitates that these only besummarized here.Researchers spoke about the need for learners to “go deep” in their understanding of thephenomena involved in their respective content area. Depending on the focus of theresearch, very deep conceptual understanding of biology, chemistry, and/or physics willbe required as well as knowledge of their respective engineering field. Because no oneresearcher will have all the necessary knowledge in all the required domains,interdisciplinarity is a must. Knowledge of quantum mechanics is also vital.Respondents also mentioned the importance of computational thinking and a need to beable to work with complex systems.ImplicationsWe have used the results of this study to propose a model of the knowledge and thinkingrequired to make sense of nanoscale phenomena. (See Figure 1.) The top level of thepyramid represents the kinds of knowledge that are needed. The circles represent deepconceptual understanding of basic science and engineering concepts. Four circles arepresented as a way to illustrate that there are multiple domains. Understanding quantummechanics is central and thus is at the center of the diagram. The boundaries of thecircles are represented as dotted lines because this kind of work requires researchers tobridge domains.The bottom of the pyramid describes kinds of thinking needed: computational thinkingand the ability to handle complex systems.Figure 1. Proposed model of the knowledge and thinking needed to make sense ofnanoscale phenomenaWe propose this model to stimulate continued discussion of what it takes to make sensenanoscale phenomena. This discussion could lead to uncovering what Wiggins andMcTighe call the “enduring understanding” of a content area. In their “backwardsdesign” approach to curriculum development, Wiggins and McTighe argue thatdetermining the enduring understanding of a domain is the first step in creatinginstructional interventions. Thus this model could ultimately lead to documenting theenduring understanding needed to make sense of nanoscale phenomena and become aframework to guide the design of nanoscale science and engineering curricula.

Magana, A. J., & Streveler, R. A., & Barrett, N. (2011, June), Making Sense of Nanoscale Phenomena: A Proposed Model of Knowledge and Thinking Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18319

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