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Using the Engineering Grand Challenges to Foster Critical Thinking and Awareness of the Engineer's Role in the Global Community

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

First-year Programs Division Technical Session 9: Focus on Student Learning, Lifelong Learning, and the Whole Student

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1688.1 - 26.1688.10



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Paper Authors


Angela Thompson P.E. University of Louisville

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Dr. Angela Thompson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Fundamentals at the University of Louisville. Dr. Thompson received her PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Louisville. Her research interests are in biomechanics and engineering education, particularly related to critical thinking instruction.

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Patricia A Ralston University of Louisville

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Dr. Patricia A. S. Ralston is Professor and Chair of the Department of Engineering Fundamentals at the University of Louisville. She received her B.S., MEng, and PhD degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Louisville. Dr. Ralston teaches undergraduate engineering mathematics and is currently involved in educational research on the effective use of technology in engineering education, the incorporation of critical thinking in undergraduate engineering education, and retention of engineering students. She leads a research group whose goal is to foster active interdisciplinary research which investigates learning and motivation and whose findings will inform the development of evidence-based interventions to promote retention and student success in engineering. Her fields of technical expertise include process modeling, simulation, and process control.

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Using the Engineering Grand Challenges to Foster Critical Thinking and Awareness of the Engineer’s Role in the Global Community All freshmen engineering students at University X are required to take an Introduction toEngineering course. A key component in this course is instruction in critical thinking. The Paul-Elder (PE) Critical Thinking framework is demonstrated to students early in the semester [1].The framework highlights that good critical thinking involves identifying the elements of one’sreasoning (purpose, questions, point of view, assumptions, information, concepts, implications,and inferences) and assessing the quality of that reasoning using standards (e.g. clarity,accuracy, relevance). In past years, students applied the framework through analysis andevaluation of an engineering related article and were encouraged to use the framework indevelopment of reports for a separate design project. In Fall 2014, faculty sought to enhance and expand critical thinking instruction in thecourse by providing students with more meaningful opportunities to apply the PE framework.Previous studies have reported benefits of using the National Academy of Engineering’s GrandChallenges in first-year courses to increase student interest and learning outcomes throughexposure to real-world engineering applications [2, 3]. Thus, several written assignments for thiscourse were crafted around the Grand Challenges. The purpose of these assignments was two-fold. First, students would have opportunities to develop their critical thinking skills byanalyzing current engineering issues. Second, it was hoped that students would gain anawareness of engineers’ roles in the global community by exposure to the Grand Challenges. Atthe beginning of the semester, students were provided a brief introduction to the GrandChallenges. Then students worked in teams of 4-5 to research one of the National Academy ofEngineering’s “Grand Challenges” relating to their chosen field of study. Students have threewriting assignments relating to the Grand Challenges. First, teams will submit reports on theirselected challenge using the PE framework to guide their writing and will share their findingswith the class. Additionally, students will complete two individual written reflections, one eachat the beginning and end of the semester. The first reflection asked students to describe whichGrand Challenge they would most like to address and why. The second reflection will askstudents to describe the ethical implications of their selected Grand Challenge. Three methods will be used to evaluate the impact of the Grand Challenge assignments inachieving the following learning outcomes: (1) students are able to explain the structure of thePE framework and apply the framework when solving problems, (2) students are aware ofcommunity issues within the engineering discipline. 1. Group reports on the Grand Challenges will be assessed for the students’ understanding/application of the Paul-Elder critical thinking framework. 2. Students written reflections will be evaluated against a holistic rubric based on the Paul- Elder framework to assess critical thinking ability [4]. The rubric assesses critical thinking on a four point scale (Figure 1), with a score of four demonstrating the highest level of critical thinking. Reflections at the beginning and end of the semester will be compared to assess whether individuals’ critical thinking abilities improved over the course of the semester. 3. A survey will be provided at the end of the semester to assess students’ perceptions of critical thinking skill development. Initial reflections for a random subset of students (n=107) have been scored using thecritical thinking rubric by two faculty. Preliminary results (mean score of 2.02) indicatereasonable agreement between raters using the rubric (exact agreement on 50%, intra-classcorrelation coefficient=0.442). Results from remaining assignments will be provided in the fullpaper to gauge effectiveness and determine directions for future improvement. Figure 1. Holistic rubric used to evaluate critical thinking ability [4].References 1. Paul, Niewoehner, and Elder. (2006). The Thinkers Guide to Engineering Reasoning. Foundation for Critical Thinking. 2. Huettel, Gustafson, Nadeau, Schaad, Barger, Linnenbrink-Garcia. (2013). A Grand Challenge-Based Framework for Contextual Learning in Engineering. ASEE Annual Conference. Atlanta, GA. 3. Corneal, Lindsay. (2014). Use of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering as a semester-long project for an Introduction to Engineering course. ASEE Annual Conference. Indianapolis, IN. 4. Author X and Author Y. (2010). Refining a Critical Thinking Rubric for Engineering. ASEE Annual Conference. Louisville, KY.

Thompson, A., & Ralston, P. A. (2015, June), Using the Engineering Grand Challenges to Foster Critical Thinking and Awareness of the Engineer's Role in the Global Community Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.25024

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