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Negotiating STEM Epistemic Commitments for Engineering Design Challenges

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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

Research on Engineering Design Education

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.969.1 - 25.969.19



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Paper Authors

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Leema Kuhn Berland University of Texas, Austin


Kirstin Collette Busch University of Texas, Austin

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K.C. Busch is a graduate student in science education at the University of Texas, Austin. She earned a B.S. in ecology from Iowa State University and taught science in secondary schools for 12 years. Busch’s research interests include argumentation about climate change and classroom-embedded professional development strategies. She is also investigating decision-making processes of students engaged in design-based engineering curricula.

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Negotiating STEM epistemic commitments for engineering design challengesLiterature calls for students to collaborate on engineering design challenges, with the expectationthat this combination of design and group work will prepare students to think and work likeengineers. Collaboration includes the expectation that students will negotiate across theirdifferent ideas in order to converge on a single understanding and, in the case of engineering, asingle design. This convergence requires that individuals compare and evaluate their disparateideas as they move towards consensus. Literature simultaneously calls for students to apply andexplore STEM content while engaged in engineering design challenges. As such, engineeringstudents—and professional engineers, for that matter—are working in multiple disciplines, eachof which has unique epistemic commitments for guiding decision making and negotiationprocesses. Moreover, work in science education demonstrates that students will apply differentepistemic commitments to different situations, depending on their interpretation—or framing—of that situation. As such, this paper explores the question: how do novice engineering studentsnegotiate and apply their various epistemic commitments to their collaborative decision making?Methods. For this study, we observe teachers participating in an engineering teacher certificateprogram. In this particular study, the participants were enacting a high school unit designed byresearchers at the university as both an example of engineering pedagogy and an opportunity toexplore key engineering concepts. Data comes from videotaped observations of two groups ofparticipants as they navigate through three stages of the design process: planning, building andrefining a pinhole camera. Transcripts of these observations were analyzed using a combinationof theory driven and data driven methods. We entered into the analyses expecting to see thebroad categories of epistemic commitments that align with the domains of math, science andengineering. For example, scientific inquiry is rooted in empirical evidence and previouslyagreed upon scientific concepts and engineering decisions are often based upon model-basedpredictions and user needs.Findings. Preliminary analyses suggest that the student decision-making was largely influencedby epistemic commitments that align with engineering including feasibility of designs, customerneeds, and simplicity. In addition, students used science concepts such as focal length, aperture,and how light travels to defend and negotiate various design ideas. Interestingly, while the unitwas designed to facilitate mathematical modeling, we saw little evidence of these ideas instudent discussions. Current analyses are building on these categorizations to characterize theways in which students negotiate their differing epistemological understandings of their work.Conclusions and Implications. This study reveals that the two goals of student collaborationand cross-disciplinary investigations of engineering problems can pose challenges to educators.First and foremost, we see that different students will bring different epistemic commitments totheir group discussions. This is sensible given the cross-disciplinary nature of this work.Moreover, this study suggests that students must be supported not only in the work ofengineering and the application of STEM concepts, but also in identifying and negotiating thevarious epistemic commitments being utilized in the decision-making processes.ReferencesAndriessen, J. (2007). Arguing to Learn. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 443-460). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Barab, S. A. (2007). Design-based research: methodological toolkit for the learning scientist. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 153-169). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Duschl, R. A. (2000). Making the nature of science explicit. In R. Millar, J. Leach, & J. Osborne (Eds.), Improving science education: The contribution of research (pp. 187-206). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.Fortus, D., Dershimer, R. C., Krajcik, J., Marx, R. W., & Mamlok-Naaman, R. (2004). Design- Based Science and Student Learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(10), 1081-1110.Hammer, D., & Elby, A. (2003). Tapping epistemological resources for learning physics. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(1), 53-90.Jin, Y., & Geslin, M. (2010). A Study of Argumentation-Based Negotiation in Collaborative Design. AI EDAM, 24(Special Issue 01), 35-48.Jonassen, D., Strobel, J., Lee, C. (2006). Everyday Problem Solving in Engineering: Lessons for Engineering Educators. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(2), 139-151.Kolodner, J. L., Camp, P. J., Crismond, D., Fasse, B., Gray, J., Holbrook, J., Puntambekar, S., et al. (2003). Problem-Based Learning Meets Case-Based Reasoning in the Middle-School Science Classroom: Putting Learning by Design Into Practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12(4), 495-547.National Research Council. (2009). Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the status and improving the prospects. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Berland, L. K., & Busch, K. C. (2012, June), Negotiating STEM Epistemic Commitments for Engineering Design Challenges Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21726

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