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Work in Progress: Understanding Ambiguity in Engineering Problem Solving

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Student Approaches to Problem Solving

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Marah B. Berry University of Florida

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Marah Berry is a PhD student at the University of Florida studying Environmental Engineering. Her research focuses on engineering problem solving. Her interest for problem solving began while she obtained her M.E. in Systems Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University.

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Elliot P. Douglas University of Florida

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Elliot P. Douglas is Professor of Environmental Engineering Sciences and Engineering Education, and Distinguished Teaching Scholar at the University of Florida. His research interests are in the areas of problem-solving, cultures of inclusion in engineering, engineering ethics, and environmental justice.

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David J. Therriault University of Florida

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Dr. Therriault, an Associate Professor joined the College of Education at the University of Florida in 2004. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of New Hampshire and his M. A. and Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Therriault’s primary research interests include the representation of text in memory, comprehending time and space in language, the link between attention and intelligence, the use of perceptual symbols in language, and educational issues related to these topics.

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Jeremy A. Magruder Waisome University of Florida

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Dr. Jeremy A. Magruder Waisome is a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Florida (UF) and Project Manager of the National Science Foundation Broadening Participation in Computing Alliance: The Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences (iAAMCS). She works in the Human Experience Research Lab under the supervision of Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, where she conducts research on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computing (STEM+C). Dr. Waisome also works with Dr. Elliot Douglas, who serves as the Director of the Engineering Education Collaborative at UF conducting research related to engineering problem-solving.

Due to her advocacy for diversifying the STEM+C space through evidence-based methods, program support, and mentoring, Dr. Waisome was appointed to serve as Special Assistant to the UF Dean of the Graduate School in the Division of Graduate Student Affairs.

Dr. Waisome earned her B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in civil engineering from UF. During her studies, she became passionate about issues of equity, access, and inclusion in engineering and computing and worked to develop programs and activities that supported diverse students in these disciplines.

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WIP: Understanding Ambiguity in Engineering Problem Solving

This work in progress paper poses the research question, what are the qualitatively different ways that novice and expert engineers experience ambiguity. Engineers are frequently confronted with complex, unique, and challenging problems. Many of our most pressing engineering problems contain ambiguous elements, and a core activity of engineering is being able to solve these complex problems effectively. Within the existing literature, many engineering problems are dichotomously characterized as either well-structured (unambiguous) or ill-structured (ambiguous). Ambiguity, if it is mentioned at all in the problem classification, is only identified as a structural element. Ambiguity has not yet been adequately operationalized in the engineering problem solving literature. As a result there is little research specifying different types of ambiguity or how problem solvers may experience ambiguity differently within the same problem. Without a better understanding of ambiguity in problem solving, it is difficult to develop educational approaches that will teach students how to successfully navigate ambiguous problems.

To date, a pilot study consisting of four interviews has been conducted with senior civil engineering students. Artifact elicitation is being used, which allows participants to bring problems with them that they consider to be ambiguous. This technique allows them to recall their experiences with solving the problem and describe their experiences in greater detail. The data collection is ongoing; therefore, our results are not complete. Two preliminary categories have been identified: absence/uncertainty and role/context. Absence/uncertainty refers to students perceiving that they lack information. For example, they did not know the values for variables in the problem, did not understand the relationship between variables, or lacked knowledge needed to solve the problem. Role/context refers to students perceiving aspects of the problem-solving process to be unclear. Within this category students were unsure of the expectations from the instructor, the criteria they should have used to solve the problem, or what the outcomes of the process should have been. They were also unsure of their role in group problem solving. Once the data set is complete, we will analyze it using phenomenography in order to understand the variations in how students experience ambiguity in engineering problem solving.

Engineering problem solvers that are confident in handling ambiguity are needed to solve real world, complex problems. This project will help to inform future studies of engineering problem solving. Having a deeper understanding of the difficulties that problem solvers go through will ultimately help us provide better instructional materials, methods, and tool kits for teaching students how to solve ambiguous engineering problems.

Berry, M. B., & Douglas, E. P., & Therriault, D. J., & Waisome, J. A. M. (2020, June), Work in Progress: Understanding Ambiguity in Engineering Problem Solving Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35698

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