How People Learn Engineering

Linking Pedagogy to Professional Skills: One Page
Instructional Resources Built from an NSF Study on
Engineering Practice
Part of the NSF-funded project:
Aligning Educational Experiences with Ways of Knowing Engineering (AWAKEN)
Grant No. EEC-0648267
Who is here with us?
Quick poll – What is your field
of study?
Natural Science
Physical Science
Who is here with us?
Quick poll, are you a:
a) Graduate student
b) Faculty
c) Academic staff
d) Administrator
e) Other (write in the
others on the slide…)
Who we are
Kevin Anderson &
Tom McGlamery
NSF Project Team also included:
Sandy Courter, Traci Nathans-Kelly &
Christine Nicometo
Outcomes: You will…
• Gain tools for explicitly integrating real-world
problem solving and teamwork skills in your
This study applies across disciplines.
• “Essential learning
outcomes” are
similar across STEM
disciplines and
• Intellectual and
Practical Skills
• Inquiry and analysis
• Critical and creative
• Written and oral
• Quantitative literacy
• Information, media,
and technology literacy
• Teamwork and problem
We wanted an authentic picture of engineering
work, thinking, and learning.
“Participation in a community of practice
involves developing that community’s ways of
doing, being, caring, and knowing—and [their]
distinct way of thinking … an epistemic frame.”
~David W. Shaffer
We use a mixed methodology.
& Essays
Engineers say that the essential skills in their
work are communication and problem solving.
Communication skills
Solving problems
Application of ethics
Life-long learning
Business understanding
Engineers value doing and learning new
Solving new problem
Learning something new
Exercising creativity
Making money for the company
Benefit society
Relationships with clients
4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 4.9
Where are you now?
• As an instructor, what do you do now to
explicitly engage students in real-world
problem solving?
Go to the one page report on
problem solving.
Problem solving
• How is workplace problem solving
different than what is done in the
traditional classroom?
– Trevelyan (2010)
– Jonassen, Strobel and Lee (2006)
Problem solving
• What are you doing to get freshman
involved in real-world problem solving
from day one?
– Improves retention!
Problem solving
• Case studies
– Article: combines case w/ activity
– Center for Case Studies in Engineering
– Learning from engineering failures
– Ethics through case studies
Problem solving
• Model Eliciting Activities – ask students,
like practicing engineers, to better
understand an open-ended, clientdriven problem by mathematically
modeling its parameters.
• Yildirim, Shuman and Besterfield-Sacre (2010) IJEE
Assessing and supporting problem
• How do you assess problem solving?
– Student portfolios of work
– Rubric
– In class structures for basic problems
Most engineering problems are solved in
• “Engineering is almost always a team sport.
Communicating and working well with others
to define and solve problems are fairly
important skills.”
• “If I have to name two things that can derail
a technically competent engineer who works
hard, it's the inability to work in teams and
inability to effectively communicate.”
• What kinds of teams do students form
in your discipline and your classes?
• What team-related activities are
incorporated into your classes?
Briefly, here is what we will discuss:
I. The culture of individualism that prevails in many
II. The resulting need students have for help in
executing team projects.
III.The several different challenges engineering design
projects pose.
IV. The wide range of approaches engineering faculty
take to teaching teams.
V. A hybrid approach that balances need for
supervision with need for the lessons of autonomy.
Though changes are afoot, student culture and
work is still highly individualized.
Activities, including homework
Organization of space
Tests and Grades
• Group presentations
• Peer review and group projects
• Group tables
Students thus need help when undertaking team
projects, especially long-term, high-stakes projects.
• Inexperienced:
• Unprecedented technical, logistical, and social
• For some it is their first design experience
• For many it is their first semester-long (or longer) project
• Their social interactions are more diverse, sustained, and
momentous than those required by previous projects.
• Resistant:
• Accustomed to standing or falling on their own
• Resentful of circumstances of dependency
• Worried because of poor past experiences in
Social challenges are substantially informed by the
difficulty and duration of the project. They include . . .
Conflicting goals and agendas
Conflicting judgments
Disparate skills and skill levels
Client-associated challenges:
• Clarifying needs and wants
• Communicating constraints
• Answering diplomatic challenges
• This is not to even broach how team dynamics
are complicated by interpersonal relationships
and agendas that can develop over the term.
• Faculty take widely divergent
approaches to supervising their teams.
• How much support/direction do you
provide to your teams?
• What is the nature of that support and
• For the purpose of this discussion, let’s
reduce faculty approaches to two:
• hands-off and hands-on.
In the hands-off approach . . .
• Teams are assigned and then provided with
– a problem to solve (often through design)
– deadlines to meet
– clients to serve
• Interactions with the instructor generally take the
form of somewhat infrequent but regular meetings,
presentations, or document submissions.
Unscheduled consultation is strongly discouraged.
• Teams are virtually required, to handle their own
logistical challenges and resolve their own conflicts.
This approach can especially be
appropriate if . . .
• Projects are of relatively slight complexity and
• Teams are small.
• Students are experienced at team projects or have
extensive organizational experience.
The optimal outcome for this approach is
that . . .
• The technical, logistical, and social problems
are solvable. The project is a success, the
students learn not only technical skills but
also project and conflict management skills,
and the instructor avoids being unnecessarily
But negative consequences can also follow
from instructor under-involvement:
• Students won’t know “where to start.”
• Students make unrealistic schedules and plans.
• Students employ ineffective project management
• Students have no strategies for managing conflict.
• Frustration, time waste, underperformance, and
under-learning follow. Clients, too, maybe
negatively affected.
A more hands-on approach is advised
when. . .
• Projects are usually lengthy and technically complex.
• Teams are large, diverse.
• Students may not have much team experience.
In the hands-on approach . . .
• Teams are assigned and then provided with
– a problem to solve (often through design),
– deadlines to meet,
– clients to serve.
• Scheduled meetings are more frequent, and a certain amount
of unscheduled consultation is tolerated or even encouraged.
• Instructor sets closely scheduled interim deadlines for the
teams. Instructor may provide forms for helping teams with
self-evaluation, task-scheduling and assignment, etc.
• Teams are encouraged to handle their own conflicts, but
instructors indicate willingness to be involved when certain
thresholds are reached.
The optimal outcome for this approach is
that . . .
• again, the myriad problems are solvable.
The project is a success; the students learn a
wide range of skills; clients and instructors
are happy with outcomes.
Over-involvement, of course, denies students
ownership and learning opportunities. It also
eats up the instructor’s time and energy.
A hybrid approach compels students to develop
important tools for team management through focused
• Conducting a pre-mortem
• Developing a team compact
• Reading, and being tested upon, materials providing
grounding in the following:
Opening and maintaining effective communication
Planning and running effective meetings
Setting and maintaining a realistic schedule
Assigning clearly defined roles
Making responsible decisions
Managing conflict
A pre-mortem is an exercise intended to avert what
Danial Kahneman has called “The Planning Fallacy.”
• The team imagines that their project
has failed and provides likely reasons
• Inventory problems with past team
• Relay word on the street re: challenges
posed by the course and project.
• What are the common problems you
see in your own teams or hear about
from colleagues?
• How are these problems solved or
The compact provides a set of agreed-upon rules and
standards for student conduct.
1. Set team goals
2. Stipulate attendance expectations
3. Define acceptable meeting behavior
4. Set acceptable response-time limits
for email and other communications
5. Prescribe minimum amount of time
members should devote each week to
The compact provides several important benefits:
1. It provides the team with a focused initial
task that yields a framework for later work.
2. It helps the team identify and avoid
potential pitfalls.
3. It provides an important accountability
We also recommend that the instructor perform an
induction interview comprising the following:
1. Justifying the team pedagogy and
associated activities
2. Previewing hardship for the teams
3. Projecting successful outcomes
Here are some resources you may find
You can also go to our one page report
on teamwork.
Final Q&A
Do you have any final questions or comments
for the group or the presenters?
Thank you for joining us!
For further information you may also visit our
Kevin Anderson: [email protected]
Tom McGlamery: [email protected]
Funded by NSF Grant No. EEC-0648267

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