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WIP: High-Achieving Students’ Perceptions of and Approaches to Problem Solving in Introductory Engineering Science Courses

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Works in Progress II

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors

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Rebecca LeBow Tufts University


Kristen B. Wendell Tufts University

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Kristen Wendell is Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Education at Tufts University. Her research efforts at at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach focus on supporting discourse and design practices during K-12, teacher education, and college-level engineering learning experiences, and increasing access to engineering in the elementary school experience, especially in under-resourced schools. In 2016 she was a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

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Jessica E. S. Swenson Tufts University, Center for Engineering Education and Outreach

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Jessica Swenson is a graduate student at Tufts University. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a research focus on engineering education. She received a M.S. from Tufts University in science, technology, engineering and math education and a B.S. from Northwestern University in mechanical engineering. Her current research involves examining different types of homework problems in mechanical engineering coursework and the design process of undergraduate students in project-based courses.

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This work-in-progress paper is grounded in the understanding that undergraduate students’ approach to solving engineering classroom problems influences what they learn in the moment and in the future. Previous research on undergraduates’ beliefs about engineering problem solving has shown that students realize there is a disconnect between their classroom approach and the higher level of critical thinking they will have to exercise to solve workplace problems. However, it is not known how students come to see this disconnect between classroom and workplace problems, or whether there is a pattern to how students’ problem solving approaches develop over time. In this qualitative research we sought to capture students’ approaches to problem solving just as they were beginning their first engineering science course and track it over the course of the semester. This study was guided by the research question: what is the range of high-achieving undergraduate students’ perceptions of and approaches to problem-solving over the course of their first engineering science course?

We conducted a series of three cognitive interviews with four students over the course of a one-semester statics and dynamics course. They all earned high grades on homeworks, quizzes, and exams. Each interview had two phases. First, students were asked open-ended questions about their methods of problem solving and conceptual questions. Second, they were asked to think aloud as they solved varying types of statics and dynamics problems, including textbook problems, concept questions, and more open-ended design and analysis tasks. Using qualitative grounded theory methodology, we analyzed the interview transcripts to identify themes around which the four participants converged and diverged.

The four participants approached the open-ended problems in the third interview quite similarly but showed variation in the first and second interviews in how strongly they relied on the course instructor’s step-by-step method for solving highly structured textbook problems. However, the students placed similar value on the power of algebraic models for solving textbook problems and on the importance of practicing textbook problem-solving regularly. They also all perceived the problems they solved for both homework and tests as highly-structured problems with “nice clean numbers” for answers. Where the students differed was in their confidence in and enjoyment of tackling ill-structured problems. Students also differed in the degree to which they saw the focus on highly-structured textbook problems as a limitation of their engineering education. These results suggest that engineering instructors and education researchers should resist the temptation to treat high-achieving undergraduate students as monolithic in their epistemologies and framings of problem-solving contexts.

LeBow, R., & Wendell, K. B., & Swenson, J. E. S. (2018, June), WIP: High-Achieving Students’ Perceptions of and Approaches to Problem Solving in Introductory Engineering Science Courses Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31251

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