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Project-based Learning in a High School Pre-engineering Program: Findings on Student Behavior (RTP, Strand 3)

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Research to Practice: STRAND 3 – Principles of K-12 Engineering Education and Practice

Tagged Division

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1266.1 - 26.1266.20



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Paper Authors


Todd France University of Colorado, Boulder

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Todd France is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is part of the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education Program and helps teach and develop curriculum at a high school STEM academy. His research focuses on pre-engineering education and project-based learning.

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Project-based learning in a high school pre-engineering program: Findings on student behavior (RTP, Strand 3) An ethnographic case study was conducted within a high school pre-engineering course.The course was taught to thirty-nine junior-level students and centered on the design andconstruction of working hovercrafts. The course is part of a unique pre-engineering program thataims to provide students of nearly all abilities with opportunities to learn about and practiceengineering in hands-on projects. The program emphasizes the development of universal skillsand habits-of-mind including communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and affect. Whilethe program has shown promise, the classroom teachers have been somewhat dissatisfied,particularly concerning student behavior and achievement. It is hoped that the immediate impact of the research will be the provision of justifiedrecommendations for the pre-engineering program. But more importantly, transferrable ideasdrawn from the study will offer readers better insight into a high school pre-engineering coursewhich utilizes a project-based learning method. Of particular interest will be the challenges thatmay arise in such an educational setting. The research questions that helped guide the study areas follows: 1) In the context of high school pre-engineering, under what circumstances hasproject-based learning been beneficial/unsuccessful? 2) What tensions have been generated? In order to develop a deeper understanding of the interactions and events within theclassroom, it was decided that a qualitative study would be most suitable. Data was collectedduring the semester-long course and includes daily observations, completed student work,student records, open-ended and Likert-type surveys, and informal discussions with theclassroom teacher. In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with administrators,teachers, and students. The data has been analyzed for emergent themes and connections,quantified when possible, and compared with relevant literature. The findings for this paper will focus specifically on student behavior within the courseunder study, categorized into three areas – participation, group work, and the classroomenvironment. These areas are of particular interest to practitioners since project-based learningplaces teachers in a very different role than traditional lecture-style courses and new-foundstudent freedom often results in varying levels of controlled chaos. In addition, this differentform of student engagement has been grounds for overestimating the benefits of the learningmodel. Preliminary findings suggest that due to the program’s stated purpose of serving thegeneral student population (as opposed to catering strictly towards high-achieving students), asizable number of students enroll and remain in the program for less-than-ideal reasons,jeopardizing the opportunities for hard-working students to gain experience in authentic projectcontexts. While teachers and students alike readily admit that the learning environment can beimproved by removing poor-performing students from the program, there is a general reluctanceto do so. In addition, students struggle to collaborate well together, often dividing work amongstthemselves, resulting in unequal skill development. Modifications to the assessment structure areviewed as a practical means by which to improve student participation.

France, T. (2015, June), Project-based Learning in a High School Pre-engineering Program: Findings on Student Behavior (RTP, Strand 3) Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24603

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