June 15, 2014
June 15, 2014
June 18, 2014
Educational Research and Methods
24.1110.1 - 24.1110.12
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.
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