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Problem Solving In The Research Laboratory A Workshop For Graduate Students

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Mentoring Graduate Students

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.1017.1 - 10.1017.6

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Paper Authors

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Michele Miller

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Problem Solving in the Research Laboratory —A Workshop for Graduate Students

Michele H. Miller Michigan Technological University

Abstract Graduate students often struggle to overcome the obstacles inherent in experimental work. Through practice over the course of a graduate program, many students will transition from novice to expert problem solvers even though they receive little explicit instruction on how to do this. This paper describes a workshop whose purpose is to give graduate students tools to use when encountering unexpected problems in the lab. A pilot two-hour version of the workshop was delivered to nine graduate students in January 2004. It consisted of a hands-on experiment, two brainteaser puzzles, and descriptions of several case studies. Through these activities, students learned concepts such as: playing with the experimental setup to get a feel for important factors and sources of inconsistency; evaluating whether measurement results make sense; where to start looking for culprits when results do not make sense; and breaking a complex problem down into simpler problems. Student feedback indicated they liked the workshop topic and wanted to learn more strategies for tackling problems.

Introduction Grad students who excel in the classroom are often ill prepared for the experimental work that engineering research requires. They conduct designed experiments whose effects should have been obvious without doing the experiment. They have difficulty interpreting the meaning of real data that is messier than they expect. They lack confidence in learning new equipment and troubleshooting their experimental setup. Unfortunately (or fortunately), encountering obstacles all the time is part of the process. The unexpected makes experimental work difficult…and exciting. Problem solving in the lab involves debugging to find the reason for the problem and, when faced with limitations in equipment or time, coming up with alternative approaches to achieving goals.

The differences between novice and expert troubleshooting technicians have been characterized as shown in Table 1. With much practice in the lab many, but not all, graduate students become expert troubleshooters and problem solvers. More explicit instruction and opportunities for practice may speed up this transition.

Table 1: Characteristics of troubleshooting technicians (Perez, 1991)

Novice Expert Physical, surface aspects Functional aspects Despite work on system A, system B seems Work on system A transfers to work on new totally new system B Has “what it is” knowledge Has “what it is” and “how it works” knowledge

Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition Copyright © 2005, American Society for Engineering Education

Miller, M. (2005, June), Problem Solving In The Research Laboratory A Workshop For Graduate Students Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon.

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