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Proposing a Model of Conceptual Understanding of Equilibrium to Inform Interdisciplinary and Integrated Curricula

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session


Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1002.1 - 23.1002.10



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Paper Authors


Dana Denick Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Dana Denick is a PhD student in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Dana holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Bucknell University, MA in Physics Education from the University of Virginia and MS in Library and Information Science from Drexel University. Her research interests include conceptual understanding of engineering science and information literacy for engineering.

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Ruth A. Streveler Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Ruth A. Streveler is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Dr. Streveler has been the Principle Investigator or co-Principle Investigator of ten grants funded by the US National Science Foundation. She has published articles in the Journal of Engineering Education and the International Journal of Engineering Education and has contributed to the Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research. She has presented workshops to over 500 engineering faculty on three continents. Dr. Streveler’s primary research interests are investigating students’ understanding of difficult concepts in engineering science and helping engineering faculty conduct rigorous research in engineering education.

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Proposing a Model of Conceptual Understanding of Equilibrium to Inform Interdisciplinary and Integrated CurriculaInterdisciplinary and integrated curricula are becoming more popular in undergraduateengineering education. One recurrent theme among integrated curricula is a focus on studentsdeveloping an understanding of the engineering sciences as a complex system that involvefundamental sciences, modeling, and problem-solving. Interdisciplinarity in engineeringeducation requires that students be able to integrate concepts and strategies from multipleperspectives in order to solve a given problem. However, students often struggle with transfer ofsimilar engineering concepts across disciplines. Integrated curricula stress meaningful learning,in which learners attach meaning to the concepts covered, and concept formation, in whichlearners organize ideas and information to formulate new ideas and concepts that are consistentwith a scientific worldview. Research into how students learn under these conditions mayinform instructional practices of interdisciplinary and integrated curricula.Equilibrium has been identified as a difficult concept in Mechanics, Thermodynamics,Chemistry, Economics, and other scientific disciplines that are incorporated into the engineeringsciences. And yet, understanding the limits of equilibrium is crucial to defining dimensions andboundaries of engineering problems. Students at the undergraduate level have been shown tohold many common misconceptions regarding equilibrium that may inhibit their overall learningof engineering sciences. These misconceptions often take form as incomplete, incoherent sets ofcontext-specific ideas, however, an underlying misconception of equilibrium as a terminatingevent can be found in literature across multiple disciplines. This paper describes a model ofconceptual understanding of equilibrium as a result of a synthesis of literature across multipledomains.Although students enter engineering classrooms with a wide variety of prior knowledge, training,and experiences, they often undergo similar difficulties in constructing a scientifically accurateunderstanding of physical phenomena. Using conceptual change as a theoretical framework andthe described model of conceptual understanding of equilibrium, implications may be drawn forinstruction that supports the learning of equilibrium across multiple contexts and disciplines.While theories of conceptual change may vary, aspects of these theories may be useful inunderstanding how students acquire conceptual understanding of equilibrium and educationalconditions that promote conceptual change in this area.This paper focuses on equilibrium as a core concept of the engineering sciences. Throughanalysis of research in multiple domains, a synthesized model of conceptual understanding ofequilibrium has been developed. In this model, students may progress from a simplified,concrete view of equilibrium as a terminating event towards a more scientific understanding ofequilibrium as a conditional model of physical phenomena that is functional for analysis at theengineering scale. This model expressly describes the epistemological framework of equilibriumwithin engineering knowledge, both in students' misconceptions and in an agreed-upon scientificworldview.

Denick, D., & Streveler, R. A. (2013, June), Proposing a Model of Conceptual Understanding of Equilibrium to Inform Interdisciplinary and Integrated Curricula Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22387

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