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The Discourse Of Engineering: The Role Of Language And Authority In The Learning Process

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2001 Annual Conference


Albuquerque, New Mexico

Publication Date

June 24, 2001

Start Date

June 24, 2001

End Date

June 27, 2001



Page Count


Page Numbers

6.993.1 - 6.993.8

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Paper Authors

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William Clark

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Lisa Comparini

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Anthony Dixon

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David DiBiasio

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Session 2230

The Discourse of Engineering: The Role of Language and Authority in the Learning Process

David DiBiasio, William Clark, Anthony Dixon, Lisa Comparini Worcester Polytechnic Institute/University of Connecticut

Instructional design based upon situated learning theory includes authentic activities, contexts, and assessments. It provides collaborative knowledge construction and opportunities for explicit articulation of knowledge during the learning process. Most efforts to provide these elements are focused on upper level courses. Providing them at lower levels of the curriculum is problematic since the traditional assumption is that students must learn disciplinary fundamentals before they can successfully attack significant open-ended problems. How can students solve difficult open- ended engineering problems before they’ve actually learned some of the engineering they need to know in order to solve them? The application of deep "learning by doing" practices early in the curriculum may have limitations.

Background Over the past four years we developed, taught, and assessed a new curriculum for our sophomore chemical engineering courses. We taught separate sections of demographically similar cohorts where one section was taught traditionally and the other was taught using what we called a project-based, spiral curriculum. The major new features were a restructuring and spiraling of specific chemical engineering topics around a framework of open-ended, team-based projects. In the following we will refer to the group that took the new curriculum as the spiral-taught and the traditionally taught students as the comparison. Note that "spiral-taught" is a convenient term we use that includes all the teaching and curricular changes implemented during the project, not just the spiral topic structure.

The spiral curriculum was delivered through a variety of channels including cooperative-group projects, traditional lectures, homework problems, in-class active learning sessions, interactive multimedia learning tools, and laboratory experiments. To assure individual accountability, individual homework grades were recorded and individual tests were given throughout the year. A thorough understanding of the projects prepared students for most of the material on the tests, but some material was covered only in supplemental lectures and homework problems. Details of our curriculum design, delivery methods and our implementation experiences are available elsewhere.1, 2

Our overall project assessment goals were to evaluate how the project-based, spiral curriculum affected students’ ability to: solve problems at several levels of cognition, work in teams, work independently, master the fundamentals of chemical engineering, and integrate material from several courses. We were also interested in how it affects student attitudes and satisfaction about chemical engineering and their professional development within the discipline. External consultants were used to provide objective assessment through a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures. These included surveys, interviews, videotaping of class and project

Proceedings of the 2001 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright 2001, American Society for Engineering Education

Clark, W., & Comparini, L., & Dixon, A., & DiBiasio, D. (2001, June), The Discourse Of Engineering: The Role Of Language And Authority In The Learning Process Paper presented at 2001 Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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