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Work in Progress: Exploring the Nature of Students’ Collaborative Interactions in a Hands-on, Ill-structured Engineering Design Task

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Design Teams 1

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Taylor Tucker University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

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Taylor Tucker graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering mechanics. She is now pursuing a master’s degree at UIUC through the Digital Environments for Learning, Teaching, and Agency program in the department of Curriculum and Instruction. She is interested in design thinking as it applies to engineering settings and lends her technical background to her research with the Collaborative Learning Lab, exploring ways to to promote collaborative problem solving in engineering education and provide students with team design experiences that mimic authentic work in industry.

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WIP: Exploring the Nature of Students’ Collaborative Interactions in a Hands-On Ill-Structured Engineering Design Task

Engineering education is experiencing a shift in curriculum format toward more emphasis on collaborative design work. This can be accomplished through means such as collaborative ill-structured tasks, which provide students with experience authentic to industry. However, research on effective ill-structured task design in the context of undergraduate group problem solving is relatively limited. Studies have explored how to design and construct ill-structured tasks that effectively engage students and promote higher learning outcomes and group collaboration, but these tasks have primarily been limited to two-dimensional representations that lack opportunity for students to realize their design implications in the physical world. While some tasks may include three-dimensional representation of task content, very little is known about the influence on students’ collaborative interaction that can result from the use of three-dimensional, hands-on task tools in this context. This work-in-progress study seeks to address this gap by characterizing the nature of students’ interactions as they worked in small groups on an ill-structured engineering design task for which a physical object was a central component.

In previous work, a framework was developed that outlines the four collaborative problem-solving processes necessary for solving an ill-structured task: exploring the problem (P1), planning solutions (P2), attempting to solve (P3), and evaluating the solution and considering alternatives (P4). This framework has been combined with literature on hands-on learning to guide ethnographic observations of group work. Preliminary analysis of the observations revealed the following emergent themes related to factors at play during groups’ task work: the type of product, including its characteristics and affordances; individual roles taken on through self-organization; “divide and conquer” episodes in which students purposefully divided sections of the task; collaboration (as characterized by the framework)s; physical interaction with the object; physical collaboration with other group members as facilitated by the object; and interventions by the instructor.

This study will use mixed methods to analyze the interactions and experiences of twenty undergraduate engineering students in five groups as they worked together to dissect a product, model its components, and make justified design changes to their model. The listed emergent themes informed the development of a coding scheme that will be used to quantify the frequencies of characteristics as they occurred in each group’s dissection sessions. Students’ peer evaluations and individual reflections, as well as team scores for final designs, will be incorporated to produce a comprehensive image of group’s experiences during a hands-on task. It is expected that groups exhibiting more characteristics related to interaction with, and collaboration around, the product will have a deeper collective understanding with respect to its design, resulting in a more comprehensive model and higher-quality final work. The study supports the evolution of collaborative engineering problem solving by contributing to our understanding of the role of hands-on learning in design tasks, which will lead to more effective task design.

Tucker, T. (2021, July), Work in Progress: Exploring the Nature of Students’ Collaborative Interactions in a Hands-on, Ill-structured Engineering Design Task Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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