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Understanding Design, Tolerating Ambiguity, and Developing Middle School Design-based Lessons

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Pre-college Engineering Education Division Technical Session 7

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Reagan Curtis West Virginia University

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Reagan Curtis, Ph.D., is Professor of Learning Sciences and Human Development and founding director of the Program Evaluation and Research Center at West Virginia University. He pursues a diverse research agenda including areas of interest in (a) the development of mathematical and scientific knowledge across the lifespan, (b) online delivery methods and pedagogical approaches to university instruction, and (c) research methodology, program evaluation, and data analysis (qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methodological) for studies in developmental, educational, and counseling contexts. E-mail:

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Darran Cairns University of Missouri - Kansas City

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Darran is a Teaching Associate Professor in Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.

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Johnna Bolyard West Virginia University

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Johnna Bolyard is an Associate Professor of elementary and middle grades mathematics education in the College of Education and Human Services at West Virginia University. Her research interests focus on the development of mathematics teachers, particularly how K-8 teachers develop into mathematics teacher leaders.

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We have, over three years, developed a set of practices that helped move 32 middle school mathematics, science, and special education teachers away from trepidation with engineering design and toward comfort with ambiguity, confronting and reducing content knowledge gaps for themselves and their students, and engaging a professional support network. Teachers need deep understanding of the mathematics and science they will teach and knowledge of how students develop understanding of content, how to set significant learning goals, how to select and implement appropriate instructional tasks, and how to assess learning. Common Core middle grades standards include the design process in the science framework, but the design process is not easy to learn and then integrate into broader pedagogical content knowledge teachers must deploy to be successful. Teacher preparation and scaffolding are key to implementation of design based learning to support student learning gains. Well-designed professional development experiences are integral to developing such knowledge and skills. Teachers Engaged in STEM and Literacy (Project TESAL) supported middle school teachers utilizing design based learning with the ultimate goal of increasing student achievement and engagement in STEM disciplines. We focus here on how Project TESAL participating teachers shifted their stance toward ambiguity, developed comfort with the design process for integrating mathematics and science instruction, and how their lesson plans, open-ended responses to mathematics and science content tests, and focus group interviews revealed such change over time. We discuss findings from analyses of data across three years from content knowledge tests (Diagnostic Mathematics and Science Assessments for Middle School Teachers [DTAMS]), surveys (Teacher Efficacy and Attitudes Toward STEM [T-STEM], individual interviews and focus groups, teacher generated design lesson plans, and observations as participating teachers implemented lessons in their classrooms. Teachers who participated all three years discussed the integration of engineering design, complex instruction and group worthy tasks, productive struggle, mathematics-science integration, mathematical modeling, and literacy foci as fitting together in a seamless whole that allowed instruction guided by this perspective to naturally incorporate these effective practices. However, connected to this was the challenge of acquiring and implementing that complex perspective. Teachers who joined the project after the first year seem to have benefited from the experiences of their peers in the project and gained comfort with ambiguity and the design process more rapidly.

Curtis, R., & Cairns, D., & Bolyard, J. (2020, June), Understanding Design, Tolerating Ambiguity, and Developing Middle School Design-based Lessons Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35420

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