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The Social and Conceptual Function of Uncertainty in Open-Ended Project-Based Learning

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

ERM Technical Session 7: Learning and Research in Makerspaces

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Colin Dixon Concord Consortium

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Colin Dixon holds a Ph.D. in Learning & Mind Sciences from the University of California, Davis. He researches the development of STEM practices and agency among young people creating things to use and share with the world. He writes about equity and identity in making and engineering, the role of community in science learning, and how youth leverage interests and experiences within STEM education.

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Lee Michael Martin University of California, Davis Orcid 16x16

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Lee Martin studies people’s efforts to enhance their own learning environments, with a particular focus on mathematical, engineering, and design thinking. In everyday settings, he looks at the varied ways in which people assemble social, material, and intellectual resources for problem solving and learning. In school settings, he looks to find ways in which schools might better prepare students to be more resourceful and flexible in fostering their own learning.

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There is growing interest in makerspaces and other relatively open-ended learning environments that afford many entry points and pathways into and through engineering. Unlike more traditional curriculum, open-ended makerspaces elicit many sticking points and moments of uncertainty which can serve as rich contexts for conceptual development and disciplinary practice. In project-based curricula, much is unknown, unspecified, and ambiguous, conceptually and relationally. Learners must tolerate much of this ambiguity and select what and when they call attention to uncertainty - places where they see fault or limitation in their own or the group’s designs, knowledge, or plan.

In this paper, we report on a study of collaborative work in a high school-based maker club. We found that while some students were able to use their projects to pursue personal learning goals and identities, others were not. Using interaction analysis, we analyze and report on the interactions within one group as they worked through design phases of a long term project. We bring attention to how moments of uncertainty acted as pivot points that learners used to position themselves and others, to control problem-solving discourse, and ultimately to direct projects toward features and resources that served their interests.

This process is central to interest-driven learning, but also sheds light on how it can break down and reinforce existing imbalances of social and academic power. Some students in our focal group leveraged moments of uncertainty to their own benefit, shifting work toward their interests and skills. However these moments also served to marginalize other students, moving them to the periphery of project work and learning.

Dixon, C., & Martin, L. M. (2019, June), The Social and Conceptual Function of Uncertainty in Open-Ended Project-Based Learning Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33426

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