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Studying Students' Understanding of Engineering Concepts through Their Sketches

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session II

Tagged Topic

NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Geoffrey L Herman University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Geoffrey L. Herman is a visiting assistant professor with the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a research assistant professor with the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. He earned his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a Mavis Future Faculty Fellow and conducted postdoctoral research with Ruth Streveler in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. His research interests include creating systems for sustainable improvement in engineering education, promoting intrinsic motivation in the classroom, conceptual change and development in engineering students, and change in faculty beliefs about teaching and learning. He serves as the webmaster for the ASEE Educational Research and Methods Division.

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Nicole Johnson-Glauch University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Nicole received her B.S. in Engineering Physics at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) in May 2013. She is currently working towards a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) under Professor Angus Rockett and Geoffrey Herman. Her research is a mixture between understanding defect behavior in solar cells and student learning in Materials Science. Outside of research she helps plan the Girls Learning About Materials (GLAM) summer camp for high school girls at UIUC.

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Sketches and other forms of graphical communication are central to both the practice and learning of engineering. Visual representations play a critical role in helping students learn engineering concepts, socialize them into the engineering discipline, and facilitate or hinder the design process. To help students practice and use these representation, several engineering colleges and classrooms have adopted tablet- and sketch-based instruction. Despite the sustained interest in sketching on tablets and the importance of graphical communication and visual representations, our understanding of how students learn these representations and use them is poor.

To better understand how students use and produce engineering sketches, we are conducting a series of novice-expert comparison studies. Investigations into the differences between experts and novices in their ability to process and recall information have provided a critical foundation in understanding how people learn. Knowledge of these differences have led to the creation of foundational educational theories (e.g., ontological shifts), assessment tools (e.g., concept inventories), and research-based instructional practices suitable for the classroom (e.g., bridging analogies) or computer-automated environments (e.g., hierarchical analysis tools). When studying how people learn about and use scientific diagrams, these studies have revealed that experts and novices find different elements of diagrams salient and that they chunk visual information differently. For example, experts emphasize underlying processes and functions in diagrams (e.g., focusing on the cycle of evaporation and rain illustrated in a diagram) while novices focus on surface features (e.g., focusing on the fact that there are clouds, lakes, and the sun in that same diagram). Critically, these studies have established that domain knowledge dramatically influences perception and understanding of visual representations.

While this project intends to explore expert-novice differences across a number of engineering disciplines, we have started by exploring these differences in how students and professors solve finite state machine problems from digital logic courses. We have interviewed 27 students and 6 faculty, recording their sketches and their verbal explanations as they solve canonical and open-ended design problems. Analysis of these interviews using a constant comparative method has revealed that sketching behaviors can reveal underlying conceptual knowledge and structures. For example, novices who lack conceptual understanding analyze and draw diagrams from top-left to bottom-right, while individuals with deeper conceptual understanding analyze and draw diagrams with non-linear patterns. In this paper, we will share more about differences that we have discovered and provide recommendations for instruction.

Herman, G. L., & Johnson-Glauch, N. (2016, June), Studying Students' Understanding of Engineering Concepts through Their Sketches Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25947

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