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Student Responses to Challenge-based Engineering Curricula

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

Problem-based and Challenge-based Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.1191.1 - 25.1191.9



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Paper Authors


Leema Kuhn Berland University of Texas, Austin

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Leema Berland is an Assistant Professor of science education at the University of Texas, Austin. She earned a Ph.D. in the learning sciences from Northwestern University in 2008 and was a Doctoral Fellow with the NSF funded Center for Curriculum Materials in Science (2003-2008). Berland is broadly interested in facilitating and studying students as they engage in complex communication practices. She is currently focused on exploring the dynamics of how and why students are able (or unable) to productively communicate in engineering classrooms, in the context of UTeachEngineering high school classrooms.

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William F. McKenna University of Texas, Austin

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Bill McKenna received his master's of mathematics from the University of North Texas about 10 years ago, and, after a brief career in acoustical test enclosures, he is working towards a doctorate in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education. McKenna’s current research focuses on high school engineering students. In this work, he strives to connect student participation in authentic discourse practices, student understandings of the content under study and the process of effective communication, and the products they are designing. He is also pursuing the relationships between professional engineering practices and the ecology of high school engineering classrooms.

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Student Responses to Challenge-Based Engineering CurriculaEngineering educators are increasingly calling for a challenge-based approach to engineeringeducation at both the pre-collegiate and collegiate levels. This work is simultaneously calling forstudents to apply and deepen their understandings of fundamental STEM concepts as well as theengineering design process. The proposed study examines the combination of these goals askingwhether and how students perceive STEM concepts and engineering design processes asfundamental to their collaborations on engineering design challenges.Methods. We conducted interviews with 3-4 students in each of seven classes in an mid-sizedcity in the southwest. Each class was enacting a pilot engineering curriculum developed incollaboration with a local university.. The  interviews  focused  on  student  perceptions  of  class  activities,  the  engineering  design  process  and  the  role  of  STEM  content  in  engineering  design  challenges.  Our  expectation  was  that  conversations  would  elicit  student’s  thoughts  about  3  broad  themes:  1. How  do  their  experiences  in  the  engineering  class  compare  to  experiences  in  other   classes,  particularly  pertaining  to  group  work  and  ownership  of  their  products?  2. What  is  the  student’s  understanding  of  the  engineering  design  process?  3. What  (if  any)  STEM  concepts  did  the  student  perceive  as  useful  for  their  design   challenge?    Findings. While variation across individual students clearly exists, analyses of the interviewsreveal three themes:1. Students recognized their work in the engineering class as being different from typical school assignments. They viewed the engineering design challenges as relevant to the real world, and they expressed a strong sense of ownership over the products they designed.2. Students consistently viewed the STEM concepts directly related to their design work as relevant and important. For example, when explaining their work creating a model wind turbine, students discussed concepts related to drag, gears and aerodynamics.3. When discussing the project work they typically described a three step design process: identification and assignment of the challenge; creation of design; refinement of design through trial and error.Discussion and Implications. If we take the first broad theme to suggest that the studentsperceived the challenge based instruction as engaging and meaningful than the second twopatterns reveal successes and challenges associated with this pedagogical approach. In particular,the second theme implies that students see STEM concepts as relevant and applicable to theirengineering work. However, the third theme suggests continuing challenges for curriculumdesigners: Although design process was emphasized throughout the course, students seemed tounderstand it as more of a trial and error process than as a systematic approach to problemsolving. This finding makes sense in light of the physicality of engineering design: studentshave a physical product they can test and tweak thereby making more systematic approachesunnecessary. However, it does not achieve the goal of supporting students in professionallyauthentic design practices. The full paper will further elaborate on the educational implicationsof these patterns and explore strategies for supporting students use engineering design challengesto explore and apply both STEM concepts and a systematic engineering design process. ReferencesBorrego, M. (2007). "Development of Engineering Education as a Rigorous Discipline: A Studyof the Publication Patterns of Four Coalitions." Journal of Engineering Education 96(1): 5-18.Hatano, G., & Oura, Y. (2003). Commentary: Reconceptualizing School Learning Using Insightfrom Expertise Research. Educational Researcher, 32(8), 26-29.Jonassen, D., J. Strobel, et al. (2006). "Everyday Problem Solving in Engineering: Lessons forEngineering Educators." Journal of Engineering Education 95(2).Katehi, L., G. Pearson, et al., Eds. (2009). Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding theStatus and Improving the Prospects. Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press.Kolodner, J. L. (2002). "Facilitating the Learning of Design Practices: Lessons Learned from anInquiry into Science Education." Journal of Industrial Teacher Education 39(3): 9-40.Martin, T., Rivale, S., & Diller, K. (2007). Comparison of student learning in challenge-basedand traditional instruction in biomedical engineering. Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 35(48),1312-1323.McRobbie, C. J., S. J. Stein, et al. (2001). "Exploring Designerly Thinking of Students as NoviceDesigners." Research in Science Education 31(1): 91-116.Mosborg, S., Adams, R., Kim, R., Atman, C. J., Turns, J., & Cardella, M. (2005). Conceptionsof the Engineering Design Process: An Expert Study of Advanced Practicing Professionals.Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference &Exposition. Presented at the Annual Conference of the American Society for EngineeringEducation, Portland, OR.Seat, E., J. R. Parsons, et al. (2001). "Enabling Engineering Performance Skills: A Program toTeach Communication, Leadership, and Teamwork." Journal of Engineering Education 90(1): 7-12.Shulman, L. (2005). "If Not Now, When? The Timeliness of Scholarship of the Education ofEngineers." Journal of Engineering Education 94(1): 11-12.

Berland, L. K., & McKenna, W. F. (2012, June), Student Responses to Challenge-based Engineering Curricula Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21948

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