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Mental Models Elementary Teachers Hold of Engineering Design Processes: A Comparison of Two Communities of Practice

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Engineering Design

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.929.1 - 25.929.36

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Paper Authors


Ann P. McMahon Ph.D. Ann P. McMahon, LLC

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Ann P. McMahon is a STEM education consultant for grades Pre-K through 16. She holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in mechanical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. in science education from the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Her work bridges elementary education and professional engineering communities of practice. Her research and consulting interests also include applying design thinking and system dynamics methodologies to improve systems and practices in Pre-K through 16 STEM education. McMahon served for eight years as the K-12 Science Coordinator for an inner ring public school district near St. Louis, Mo. A satellite engineer for McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) for 10 years prior to her career in STEM education, McMahon was the Director and a Co-principal Investigator for one of the 88 National Science Foundation (NSF) Local Systemic Change Initiative grants awarded nationwide for science and math education reform. For 15 years, she taught physics and astronomy in Washington University’s graduate course series for in-service K-8 teachers. McMahon was the Founding Director of MySci, an innovative and award-winning mobile science outreach program for K-2 students. In that role, she led a collaborative partnership of scientists and science educators from Washington University, the Saint Louis Science Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Saint Louis Zoo in providing curriculum, professional development, kit materials, an interactive website, and a visiting science laboratory/classroom to schools throughout the St. Louis area. She serves on the national faculty of the National Science Resources Center’s Leadership Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) strategic planning institutes. She was a 2008 and 2009 fellow in the Psychodynamic Research Training Program at Yale University’s Anna Freud Child Study Center. McMahon has a distinctive ability to translate cutting edge concepts from various disciplines in science, engineering, and education in an exciting and accessible way. She has been invited to address local and national organizations where she speaks to groups of educators, parents, students, scientists, engineers, policymakers, and researchers.

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Elementary Teachers’ Mental Models of Engineering Design Processes: A Comparison of Two Communities of Practice Educating K-12 students in the processes of design engineering is a movement that isgaining in popularity in public schools. Several states have adopted standards for engineeringdesign. Beginning in the mid 1990s, curriculum designers began producing curriculum units forall grade levels at an ever-increasing rate, despite the fact that no common agreement exists onwhat should be included in the engineering design process used in K-12 education. Furthermore,very little pre-service and in-service professional development exists that will prepare teachers toteach a design process that is fundamentally different from the science teaching process found intypical public schools. This study provides a foundation upon which future studies aboutcurriculum and professional development for engineering education can be based – a glimpseinto what teachers think happens in engineering design compared to articulated best practices inengineering design. Lave and Wenger’s work with communities of practice and van Dijk’s multidisciplinarytheory of contexts as mental models provide the theoretical bases for comparing the mentalmodels of two groups of teachers to the mental models of design engineers (including thisengineer/researcher/educator). The first group of teachers teaches from textbook and/or kit-basedscience programs. The second group teaches at least one unit in an engineering-basedcurriculum. The design engineers include this engineer/researcher/educator as well asprofessional designers featured in a video. These elementary school teachers and thisengineer/researcher/educator observed a video of the design engineering process enacted byprofessionals, then answered questions designed to elicit their mental models of the process theysaw in terms of how they would teach it to their students. The participants’ mental models aregenerated from their discourse using van Dijk’s components of context models; they aredisplayed side-by-side in color-coded columns. A qualitative system dynamics model wasgenerated – based on discursive data – that compares the path to learning and executing theengineering design process as perceived by practitioners of engineering to the path perceived bypractitioners of education. The key finding is this: Both groups of teachers embedded the cognitive steps of thedesign process into the matrix of the social and emotional roles and skills of students.Conversely, the engineers embedded the social and emotional aspects of the design process intothe matrix of the cognitive steps of the design process. In other words, teachers’ mental modelsshow that they perceive that students’ social and emotional communicative roles and skills in theclassroom drive their cognitive understandings of the engineering process, while the mentalmodels of this engineer/researcher/educator and the engineers in the video show that we perceivethat cognitive understandings of the engineering process drive the social and emotional roles andskills used in that process. This comparison of mental models with the process that professionaldesigners use defines a problem space for future studies that investigate how to incorporateengineering practices into elementary classrooms. Recommendations for engineering curriculumdevelopment and teacher professional development based on the results of this study arepresented. Key ReferencesBransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school. Expanded edition. District of Columbia: National Academies Press.Design Council. (2005). The design process. Retrieved June 18, 2010, from, M. S., Bransford, J. D., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: bridging research and practice. District of Columbia: Department of Education, Washington, DC.Hirsch, G. B., Levine, R., & Miller, R. L. (2007). Using system dynamics modeling to understand the impact of social change initiatives. American Journal of Community Psychology, 39, 239-253.Katehi, L., Pearson, G., & Feder, M. A. (Eds.). (2009). Engineering in K-12 education: Understanding the status and improving the prospects. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas, Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.Penuel, W. R., & O'Connor, K. (2010). Learning research as a human science: Old wine in new bottles? National Society for the Study of Education, 109(1), 268-283.Shulman, L. S. (February 6-8, 2005). The signature pedagogies of the professions of law, medicine, engineering, and the clergy: Potential lessons for the education of teachers. Paper presented at the Math Science Partnerships (MSP) Workshop: Teacher Education for Effective Teaching and Learning, Irvine, California.van Dijk, T. A. (2008). Discourse and context: A sociocognitive approach. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

McMahon, A. P. (2012, June), Mental Models Elementary Teachers Hold of Engineering Design Processes: A Comparison of Two Communities of Practice Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas.

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