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Problem-based Learning in K-12 Engineering Lessons: Supporting and Scaffolding Student Learning

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Pre-college Engineering Education Division Technical Session 4

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Kimberly Farnsworth Arizona State University Orcid 16x16

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Kimberly Farnsworth is Education Coordinator at the Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (CBBG) a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center (ERC). She is currently a doctoral student in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University and has a M.Ed. from Arizona State University. Kimberly has over 25 years of experience in the fields of education and technology. Her research focus is on authentic learning environments in the sciences.

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Jean S. Larson Arizona State University Orcid 16x16

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Jean Larson, Ph.D., is the Educational Director for the NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (CBBG), and Assistant Research Professor in both the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University. She has a Ph.D. in Educational Technology, postgraduate training in Computer Systems Engineering, and many years of experience teaching and developing curriculum in various learning environments. She has taught technology integration and teacher training to undergraduate and graduate students at Arizona State University, students at the K-12 level locally and abroad, and various workshops and modules in business and industry. Dr. Larson is experienced in the application of instructional design, delivery, evaluation, and specializes in eLearning technologies for training and development. Her research focuses on the efficient and effective transfer of knowledge and learning techniques, innovative and interdisciplinary collaboration, and strengthening the bridge between K-12 learning and higher education in terms of engineering content.

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Problem-based learning in K-12 engineering lessons: Supporting and scaffolding student learning (RTP)


Engineering practice is often a collaborative endeavor requiring the solution of problems that are extremely complex in nature and do not have one single solution. In fact, while industry prefers engineers who can manage that level of complexity and collaboration, engineering courses in post-secondary programs tend to silo students into individual learning and projects. K-12 environments offer the potential to introduce future engineers to more complex problem-solving in peer groups at an earlier stage in their education. Problem-based learning (PBL), as one instructional approach, requires that students engage with complex, messy problems to find solutions in collaborative groups. As they engage with more authentic engineering learning situations, they will be better prepared to think as engineers do as they enter post-secondary programs and, eventually, real-world industry practice.

This paper describes a case-based, mixed-methods study looking at K-12 implementation of PBL in engineering learning environments, specifically at how two instructors (one high school and one elementary) supported and scaffolded student learning. Researchers examined how the teachers planned to scaffold and support students compared to how they implemented scaffolding in the PBL engineering activity. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, lesson plan artifact analysis, and classroom observations. Observations were coded for both scaffolding strategies (means) and goals (intentions).

Results revealed that both teachers provided a great deal of preparatory scaffolding prior to the day of the PBL activity including modeling tasks that students would use in the activity, guiding students’ development of research notebooks, and development of basic research knowledge and skills. Both teachers planned on providing just-in-time support or soft scaffolding by moving around the classroom, and asking and answering probing questions with the intent of supporting groups’ problem-solving. However, classroom observations revealed that although both teachers heavily used questioning as a scaffolding strategy, in both cases, they primarily used questioning to keep students focused on the task at hand, not to support student problem-solving. This disconnect between how the teachers planned to scaffold versus how they implemented scaffolding in a PBL activity surfaces important questions. Further research may look at how teachers plan for complex learning, what supports they might need both prior to and during classroom instruction, and how they perceive the effectiveness of their scaffolding of student learning.

Farnsworth, K., & Larson, J. S. (2020, June), Problem-based Learning in K-12 Engineering Lessons: Supporting and Scaffolding Student Learning Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35085

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