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The Importance Of Problem Interpretation For Engineering Students

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

The Best of Design in Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1238.1 - 15.1238.15



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Paper Authors


Gay Lemons Tufts University

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Gay Lemons, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral research associate in Engineering Education at Tufts University. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado, her M.S. in Psychology, also from UNC, and her B.S. in Dance from the City University of New York. Her research interests include the cognitive processes of engineering design, gender issues in engineering, and creative self-efficacy.

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Adam Carberry Tufts University

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Adam R. Carberry is a Doctoral Candidate in Engineering Education in the Tufts University Math, Science, Technology, and Engineering Education program. He holds an M.S. in Chemistry from Tufts University and a B.S. in Material Science Engineering from Alfred University. He is currently working at the Tufts University Center for Engineering Education and Outreach as a research assistant and co-manager of the Student Teacher Outreach Mentorship Program (STOMP).

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Chris Swan Tufts University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Swan is an Associate Professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at Tufts University. He is also Adjunct Associate Professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. His current interests relate to service learning in engineering education, the reuse of recovered or recyclable materials, and sustainable construction.

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Chris Rogers Tufts University

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Chris Rogers received his B.S.M.E., M.S., and Ph.D. from Stanford and is presently a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and the Director of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach at Tufts University. He has worked with LEGO to develop ROBOLAB, a robotic approach to learning science and math, as well as with a number of other companies to try and develop ways of incorporating engineering into the K-16 classroom for all students. In addition to engineering education, Chris is involved in several different research areas: particle-laden flows, telerobotics and controls, slurry flows in chemical-mechanical planarization, and the engineering of musical instruments

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Linda Jarvin Tufts University

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Linda Jarvin, Ph.D., is an Associate Research Professor in the Department of Education at Tufts University, and director of its Center for Enhancing Learning and Teaching (CELT). She received her PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Paris V (France) and her postdoctoral training at Yale University. She has extensive experience with curriculum planning and development, designing and implementing professional development opportunities for k-12 and college teachers focusing on teaching and assessment, and facilitating programmatic evaluation plans.

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

The Importance of Problem Interpretation for Engineering Students

Abstract This study used Verbal Protocol Analysis (VPA) to investigate the cognitive process of 8 undergraduate engineering students during a hands-on model building design task. The present paper will focus on one aspect that emerged from this research: the paramount importance of correctly interpreting the problem. Although this may seem simplistic, correctly framing or interpreting the problem (which is distinct from identifying the problem) was a crucial and pivotal point for these students. Without it, the developmental process stalled and the design path became more haphazard. Once students were able to correctly interpret the problem, their path to a viable solution progressed much more smoothly and efficiently.


Understanding how and if engineering students are utilizing the engineering design process (EDP) is important in order to understand and implement effective teaching of design courses. The obvious first step in any engineering design task is identifying the problem or need; a bridge washes out, garbage bins are needed for a train, an amputee needs a more comfortable leg brace. However, there needs to be a distinction made between identifying the need and interpreting the problem. Interpreting the problem is the interface between identifying the need and developing a viable solution. If addressing the issue of a town becoming inaccessible during the rainy season when its only bridge washes out, some interpretations of the problem might be that the bridge is not strong enough, there is too much water with no place to go, or the town is geographically too vulnerable. These various perspectives might all lead to good solutions, but how an engineer interprets or frames the problem informs the approaches taken and influences the solution. While identifying the need may be fairly straightforward or obvious, interpreting the problem can be much more obscure. Pahl[1] noted a decade ago that good solutions come from a thorough analysis and clarification of the task. Are engineering students learning this task clarification or problem interpretation? What factors do engineering students consider during the EDP?

Literature review

A number of studies have focused on problem interpretation. In a meta-analysis of 40 studies of the design process, Mehalik and Schunn[2] discussed how problem representation is one of the elements of the EDP. How a problem is construed has an impact on what aspects of a design are emphasized and on the solution paths chosen. They also noted that more experienced designers tended to spend more time exploring and analyzing the problem than inexperienced designers.

Ill-structured problems are often a mixture of people, institutions, artifacts, and nature, making for a complex system that could lead to half-solved problems or even solving the wrong problem. Framing the problem correctly, particularly ill-structured ones, is fundamental to its’ solution. [3] For example, in studying the design strategies of experts, Cross and Clayburn Cross noted the importance of problem framing during the design task of attaching a backpack to a bicycle. In

Lemons, G., & Carberry, A., & Swan, C., & Rogers, C., & Jarvin, L. (2010, June), The Importance Of Problem Interpretation For Engineering Students Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16000

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