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Student Autonomy: Implications of Design-based Informal Learning Experiences in Engineering

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Student Learning, Problem Solving, & Critical Thinking 1

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1110.1 - 24.1110.12



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Paper Authors


Stephanie Marie Kusano Virginia Tech

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Stephanie Kusano is a Ph.D. candidate from the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. She received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering in 2010 and her M.S. in Biomedical Engineering in 2012, both from Virginia Tech. Her research interests include informal learning, design education, and assessment. Her teaching experience has primarily been with first-year engineering workshops.

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Aditya Johri George Mason University Orcid 16x16

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Aditya Johri is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Information Technology in the Volgenau School of Engineering, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA. He studies the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) for engineering learning and knowledge sharing, with a focus on cognition in informal environments. He is a co-editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research (CHEER), Cambridge University Press (2014). He can be reached at More information about him is available at:

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Student Autonomy: Implications of Design-Based Informal Learning Experiences in Engineering Research PaperMotivation & Background It has been estimated that, over a human lifespan, about 90% of a person’s learning is dueto informal experiences. As part of their college-based undergraduate degree experience, a largeportion of engineering students are involved in different informal learning experiences, such asco-curricular design teams, student organizations, undergraduate research, or studio-basedenvironments. However, the learning outcomes of engineering students’ are typically measuredby assessing outcomes of formal instruction, and little research has been conducted to understandstudents’ outcomes of informal learning experiences. The purpose of this study was to better understand engineering students’ learningexperiences in informal learning sites, particularly their sense of autonomy, which emerged as amajor theme in initial data. Specifically, this study investigates a hands-on design andmanufacturing laboratory for engineering students in a large research and state institution, whichis home to student engineering design teams, such as a Formula design team.Methodology This study employed qualitative ethnographically-informed research methods to explorehow students on a Formula design team perceive their experience. Eight Formula students wereinterviewed – six team members and two student leaders. Additionally, two non-studentinterviews were conducted – an administrative member of the Ware Lab, and the Formulafaculty advisor. In order to supplement the interview data, naturalistic observations wereconducted and archival data was collected. Transcriptions from the interview data were open-coded, allowing for emerging themes to take precedence. Student autonomy was a majoremerging theme, so an autonomy framework informed by Littlewood and Wageman guidedadditional data analysis of the interview transcriptions.Results Not surprisingly, most of the interviewed participants indicated a disinterest in theirformal coursework, but enthusiastically spoke of their Formula team experience. This wasexpected of students who are stereotypically labeled as “grease-monkeys”. That said, even thedisinterested students demonstrated an appreciation for the value of formal coursework,particularly for technical coursework (i.e. fluid dynamics, statics, thermodynamics, etc.). Alongwith an understanding of the value of formal coursework, students indicated that technicalcoursework informed their Formula design experience, and vice versa, in some form. One of the most striking themes that emerged from this study was the level of autonomyby the students on the Formula team. Frequently mentioned by the students as “ownership” overtheir design work and learning, this sense of autonomy is something that interviewed students donot recognize in formal courses. However, interviewed students identified the “ownership” thatthe Formula design experience offers as a reason for their motivation to learn and succeed inboth formal and informal learning experiences.Conclusion & Significance Informal learning environments, such as co-curricular design teams, are an understudiedbut important aspect of students’ educational experiences. Students from a Formula design teamwere observed and interviewed. Student autonomy that the Formula design team offers is animportant and valued feature indicated by interviewed students, one that they did not identify informal courses. This study has implications towards the important role co-curricular activities,and other informal learning sites, plays in engineering students’ holistic educational experience.

Kusano, S. M., & Johri, A. (2014, June), Student Autonomy: Implications of Design-based Informal Learning Experiences in Engineering Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23043

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