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Resolving Epistemological Tension in Project-Based Introductory Engineering

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Project-Based Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Bernard David University of Texas, Austin

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Bernard David is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in STEM Education at the University of Texas at Austin, where he holds an appointment as a Graduate Research Assistant and serves as a Teaching Assistant in the UTeach program. In 2011, he received his B.S. in Physics, and in 2012, he received his M.Ed. in Secondary Teaching in Physics, both from Boston College. During his M.Ed. program, Bernard was awarded the Science Educators for Urban Schools Scholarship funded by the NSF Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. Immediately prior to doctoral study, Bernard worked as a middle and high school science teacher at a public charter school in Washington, D.C, where he coordinated the school-wide science fair and mentored students in after school enrichment programs. Bernard’s current research interests include equity in STEM education and student cognition in STEM.

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Jill Marshall University of Texas, Austin

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Jill A. Marshall is an associate professor of STEM Education. She studies how people come to understand and engineer the physical world and how teachers can facilitate that process, as well as equity issues in STEM education. She is Associate Director of the UTeach Natural Sciences teacher certification program and past President of the American Association of Physics Teachers. She received her BS in Physics from Stanford University in 1980 and her PhD in Physics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1984. She engaged in space science research for 10 years at Southwest Research Institute before becoming increasingly involved in outreach and education. She has served on the Advisory Board for PhysTEC (Physics Teacher Education Coalition) and on the Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics.

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The present research paper explores and characterizes the development of students’ epistemic stances after their engagement in a project-based introductory civil engineering course. Project-based learning (PBL) is particularly suitable for engineering courses because students are able to engage with content through ill-defined, open-ended tasks designed to mimic authentic engineering practice. However, students’ typical experiences of “doing school” are often discordant with PBL teaching methods, resulting in tension between how students consider knowledge production as “engineers” and how students consider knowledge production within a classroom context. This tension is epistemological in nature and arises between students’ practical and formal epistemological foci as they consider knowledge construction both within academic settings and within authentic, discipline-specific practice, respectively. Although engineering students describe their engagement in PBL tasks as authentic to engineering practice, they nonetheless remain skeptical about their understanding of fundamental engineering principles after participation in these tasks. As such, students’ understanding of what it means to “know” engineering by virtue of their engagement in PBL is mediated by their expectations for “doing school” in traditional coursework.

Expanding upon prior work describing such epistemological tension in PBL, the present research paper draws from interview, observation, and survey data to explicate students’ resolution of this tension after completing a project-based introductory civil engineering course. Specifically, during end-of-semester interviews, students articulate learning outcomes aligned with both course goals, such as understanding how to “[break] down complex problems into well defined sub-problems,” and “Student Outcomes” specified by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), such as “an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams” (ABET Criterion 3.d). Additionally, students describe how their understanding of these engineering concepts will impact their engagement in future coursework. This differs significantly from concerns students express during mid-semester interviews in which students are unsure as to what they are learning through engagement in PBL and how their participation in PBL will aid them in future coursework. Such shifts in students’ epistemological stances come about as students negotiate course requirements, such as quizzes and other assessments, and tailor their engagement in project-based tasks to meet these formalized course requirements. In doing so, students develop strategies for engaging in project-based tasks such that they can navigate the practical requirements of the course and continue to find relevance in the tasks.

By describing how students resolve epistemological tension in PBL, the present study offers insights into implementations of PBL with sensitivity to the tensions students experience when engaging in project-based tasks in engineering coursework.

David, B., & Marshall, J. (2017, June), Resolving Epistemological Tension in Project-Based Introductory Engineering Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28800

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