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The neurocognition of engineering students designing: A preliminary study exploring problem framing and the use of concept mapping

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Tripp Shealy Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Tripp Shealy is an Associate Professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. His research works to understand how engineers think about and apply principles of sustainability during the design and construction process of infrastructure. He also studies how engineers perceive climate change and how these perceptions shape their design decisions. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on sustainable engineering design, human behavior and infrastructure systems, and adaptive reuse.

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John Gero University of North Carolina at Charlotte


Paulo Ignacio Jr. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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PhD student at Virginia Tech. Working with Dr. Tripp Shealy. Passionate about human performance and wellbeing in the built environment.

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Neuroimaging provides a relatively new approach for advancing engineering education by exploring changes in neurocognition from educational interventions. The purpose of the research described in this paper is to present the results of a preliminary study that measured students’ neurocognition while concept mapping. Engineering design is an iterative process of exploring both the problem and solution spaces. To aid students in exploring these spaces, half of the 66 engineering students who participated in the study were first asked to develop a concept map and then construct a design problem statement. The concept mapping activity significantly reduced neurocognitive activation in the students’ left prefrontal cortex (PFC) compared to students who did not receive this intervention when constructing their problem statement. The sub-region in the left PFC that elicited less activation is generally associated with analytical judgment and goal-directed planning. The group of students who completed the concept mapping activity had greater focused neurocognitive activation in their right PFC. The right PFC is often associated with divergent thinking and ill-structured representation. Patterns of functional connectivity across students’ PFC also differed between the groups. The concept mapping activity reduced the network density in students’ PFC. Lower network density is one measure of lower cognitive effort. These results provide new insight into the neurocognition of engineering students when designing and how educational interventions can change engineering students’ neurocognition. A better understanding of how interventions like concept mapping shape students’ neurocognition, and how this relates to learning, can lay the groundwork for novel advances in engineering education that support new tools and pedagogy for engineering design.

Shealy, T., & Gero, J., & Ignacio Jr., P. (2022, August), The neurocognition of engineering students designing: A preliminary study exploring problem framing and the use of concept mapping Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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