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Using Inquiry Based Activities To Promote Understanding Of Critical Engineering Concepts

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Student Misconceptions and Problem Solving Abiltiy

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1390.1 - 11.1390.14



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Paper Authors


Michael Prince Bucknell University

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Michael Prince is a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University. His research interests focus on chemical engineering education, active learning, problem based learning, and inquiry-based methods.

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Margot Vigeant Bucknell University

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Margot Vigeant is a newly minted associate professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University. Her research interest in this topic stems from her own frustration in thermodynamics, and her profound hope we can find a way that people can "get it" the first time around!

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

Using Inquiry-Based Activities to Promote Understanding of Critical Engineering Concepts


This NSF funded (DUE 0442234) study examines the use of inquiry-based teaching to promote understanding of critical engineering concepts. Significant research shows that students often enter the classroom with tightly held misconceptions about the physical world that are not effectively addressed through traditional teaching. As a result, students are frequently able to solve problems that have been explicitly taught, but are unable to apply course concepts to solve real problems not seen in class. Failure to grasp prerequisite concepts also leaves students poorly prepared for more advanced study.

Students’ conceptual understanding can be dramatically enhanced, however, through a paradigm shift in teaching that incorporates inquiry-based methods. This is an inductive and collaborative teaching method where student teams are first introduced to specific, thought-provoking exercises. Students are placed in carefully designed situations where reality, rather than the professor, can dispute their preconceptions. The effectiveness of this approach has been extensively documented using thousands of undergraduate physics students. It has also been shown that emphasizing conceptual learning does not come at the expense of covering content or developing students’ problem-solving ability. As of yet, however, inquiry-based activities have not been systematically developed for engineering education.

This work is a step towards filling that gap. In the initial phase of the project, the work targets one student misconception relating to heat transfer. The specific misconception addressed is the differentiation between factors impacting the rate of heat transfer versus those impacting the amount of heat transfer. Educational materials to address student misconceptions in these areas have been developed and tested.

The effectiveness of the prototype materials was assessed using concept inventories. Concept inventories are reliable and valid multiple choice assessment tools specifically designed to identify common misconceptions. Members of the research team that developed a relevant concept inventory for thermal and transport science are involved as collaborators on the current project.

This paper shares the results from the first year of testing with inquiry-based lessons. The preliminary results have been quite positive. Concept inventories were used as pre- and post- course measures of student understanding in order to document actual learning gains. This was done for two distinct course offerings, one taught normally and one taught using inquiry-based activities. As a result, we have documented learning gains with and without the use of inquiry- based activities. While normal instruction did little to alter student misconceptions in the targeted areas, inquiry-based methods were found to be significantly more effective. Ongoing work will refine the existing activities, as well as test the effectiveness of new activities for thermodynamics courses designed to reduce misconceptions about entropy.

Prince, M., & Vigeant, M. (2006, June), Using Inquiry Based Activities To Promote Understanding Of Critical Engineering Concepts Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--808

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