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Understanding the Processes and Challenges Students’ Experience Solving an Open-Ended Problem

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2017 FYEE Conference


Daytona Beach, Florida

Publication Date

August 6, 2017

Start Date

August 6, 2017

End Date

August 8, 2017

Conference Session

WIP: Enrollment, Instruction and Pedagogy - Focus on Design-Based Projects

Tagged Topic

FYEE Conference - Works in Progress Submission

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Paper Authors


Courtney June Faber University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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Courtney is a Research Assistant Professor and Lecturer in the Cook Grand Challenge Engineering Honors Program at the University of Tennessee. She completed her Ph.D. in Engineering & Science Education at Clemson University. Prior to her Ph.D. work, she received her B.S. in Bioengineering at Clemson University and her M.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University. Courtney’s research interests include epistemic cognition in the context of problem solving, and researcher identity.

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Kevin Kit University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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Kevin Kit is Director of the Engineering Honors Program and Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Tennessee. He received a B.S. in Materials Engineering from Virginia Tech and M.S. and Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Delaware. He currently teaches Honors Physics for Engineers for first-year students and Honors Introduction to Materials Science and Engineering. His engineering education interests include first-year engineering courses and the effect of intrinsic motivation on student success.

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Christopher D. Pionke P.E. University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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Dr. Christopher D. Pionke has been on the faculty of the University of Tennessee (UT) since 1993 and is an Associate Professor in the Tickle College of Engineering Cook Grand Challenges Honors Program as well as the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering. In this capacity he has developed and taught courses in The Finite Element Method, Engineering Mechanics, Engineering Design, Engineering Fundamentals, Engineering Ethics, and the Chancellors Honors Program. In addition, he is a registered Professional Engineer (P.E.) in the State of Georgia. His professional experiences include jobs with Presearch, Inc. of Oak Ridge, Tennessee (1982-1984) and Optic-Electronic Corp. of Dallas, Texas (1986-1987). Chris received a B.S. in Engineering Science and a B.S. in Engineering Physics from UT in 1982, a M.S. in Engineering Science from UT in 1988, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Science and Mechanics from Georgia Tech in 1993. In addition, he spent the 1980-81 academic year as an ISEP Scholar at the University of Stirling, in Stirling, Scotland.

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There have been multiple calls to improve undergraduate engineering education in order to better prepare students to solve complex problems within rapidly changing, multi-disciplinary environments. One method to address these challenges is to provide students with the opportunity to experience design problems, open-ended problems, and ill-structured problems throughout their undergraduate studies. Open-ended and ill-structured problems, unlike well-structured problems and exercises, require students to collect information, evaluate sources, and provide a justification for their work. These problems give students the opportunity to develop skills and strategies that can be transferred to larger design experiences.

The goal of this work is to understand the process students use to complete an open-ended problem within a first-year physics for engineers course. Within the course, the students complete two design challenges; however, the majority of the problems related to the content in the course are well-defined and close-ended in nature. The open-ended problem we studied in this work requires students to identify and analyze a physical phenomenon using physics principles from the course. Students were asked to describe the phenomenon, write a problem statement, collect needed information and data, calculate a numeric answer, and justify their solution. Given that this problem was different in nature than other course problems, we sought to understand more about the processes and challenges the students faced in order to inform future versions and how to better scaffold the problem for the future.

The assignment we studied was assigned as extra-credit in the course, and students were not required to have their work included in the study to receive extra credit. In addition to writing and solving their own problem, students were asked to complete an open-ended survey. The survey included items to understand how students identified a physical phenomenon to analyze, where and how they collected the required information, and what aspects of the assignment were the easiest and most challenging. Students’ responses to the open-ended items will be analyzed using conventional qualitative content analysis in which codes will be developed from the data. We will also analyze the work students submit for the assignment, to assess quality of the assignment to gain more insight into the areas that were challenging for students. The outcomes of this analysis will be overlaid with the outcomes from analyzing the open-ended survey responses as a means of triangulation and expansion. Additionally, a constant comparative approach will be taken to understand areas of similarity and difference between students. The outcomes of the analysis will be used to inform future iterations of the assignment and provide scaffolding for the problem to better support students in the areas they found challenging.

Faber, C. J., & Kit, K., & Pionke, C. D. (2017, August), Understanding the Processes and Challenges Students’ Experience Solving an Open-Ended Problem Paper presented at 2017 FYEE Conference, Daytona Beach, Florida.

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