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Practicing Engineers Conceptions of Sight Distance and Stopping Sight Distance within the Context of Highway Design

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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

22.1165.1 - 22.1165.9



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Paper Authors


Shane A. Brown Washington State University Orcid 16x16

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Shane Brown is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Washington State University. His research focuses on conceptual understanding of engineering students and practitioners and conceptual change processes that lead to differences in understanding.

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Shannon Davis Washting State University

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Chelsea Nicholas Washington State University

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Practicing Engineers Conceptions of Sight Distance and Stopping Sight Distance within the Context of Highway DesignCivil engineering departments report to strive to prepare their graduates to beproductive and innovative design engineers. High passing rates on theFundamentals of Engineering exam, coupled with relatively poor performance onconcept inventories suggest that graduates may be able to use the equations forrelatively simple problem solving, but lack the fundamental understandings ofcore concepts. However, the knowledge and abilities of early career practicingcivil engineers has not been investigated to evaluate this claim. Situatedcognition educational theorists suggest that knowledge exists only in context, andthat learning experiences out of the context to which the knowledge will beapplied have limited effectiveness. This proposition amplifies concerns overpreparation for engineering practice and highlights the need to understandknowledge in context.The goal of this study is to synthesize early career engineers conceptions of twocore concepts in transportation design, sight distance (SD) and stopping sightdistance (SSD) within the context of engineering design. Twelve engineers whocommonly engage in highway design with between one and three years ofexperience were interviewed using an interview protocol with multiplerepresentations of these concepts and designed to elicit their conceptualunderstandings. Previously validated semi-structured clinical demonstrationinterview techniques were implemented to explore individual’s mental models ofthese concepts. This study builds upon previous efforts to understand students’conceptions of sight distance and stopping sight distance. A modified version ofthe interview protocol from the study on students’ understandings was used toallow for future comparison of results.Engineers commonly referred to design manuals and standards during interviews,and in almost all cases referred to SD and SSD concepts in relation to a particularroadway design project. In fewer cases engineers talked about equations and coreconcepts outside of the context of design. Unlike students, engineers neverreferred to elaborate personal experiences when verbalizing their understandingsof SD and SSD.Research on engineers’ conceptual understanding of core engineering concepts isimportant to providing a clear and meaningful link between engineering educationand practice and can be used to develop curriculum situated in engineeringpractice. It is still unclear when and how the conceptual changes occurred that ledto changes in thinking about SD and SSD. Future research should investigatepathways of conceptual change that lead to differences in students and engineers’thinking and would eventually contribute to context and discipline specifictheories of conceptual change. Professional Engineers Conceptual Understanding of Geometric Design The purpose of earning an engineering degree is to poses conceptualunderstanding of fundamental engineering concepts when entering the working field. Yet,past research has shown that this goal is not always met, even if a diploma is awarded.Educational research in the field of physics has proven the same findings. While studentsmay have passed their classes, their conceptual understanding of the fundamental ideas isstill lacking. From an educational prospective it is important to understand the wayengineering students learn. If students are not learning the skills they need to succeed inthe engineering field, they must be relearning these concepts while in the field. This isvery unproductive. This research shall serve as an investigation into understanding theway entry level professional engineers comprehend engineering topics of transportationfocusing on geometric design and the definitions of sight distance and stopping sightdistance. The results found can be used to help other professionals and professorsunderstand the methods in which engineers comprehend engineering concepts. After thisresearch it was discovered that practitioners used mostly design manuals when referringto geometric design. In most cases there was little reference to personal drivingexperience or physical examples. These findings may later be used in conjunction withother research projects to compare the way engineering students and engineeringprofessionals comprehend transportation engineering concepts. This research will helpuniversities and other learning institutions become aware of what information recentgraduates are retaining. From this information schools can learn what methods ofteaching are productive and which ones are not resonating with students.

Brown, S. A., & Davis, S., & Nicholas, C. (2011, June), Practicing Engineers Conceptions of Sight Distance and Stopping Sight Distance within the Context of Highway Design Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18511

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