(375n) A Look into How Students Take up Realistic Instructional Tasks

Authors: 
Koretsky, M. D., Oregon State University
Michor, E. L., Oregon State University
Nolen, S., University of Washington
One common critique of the engineering curriculum is that students leave unprepared to connect the knowledge they learned in the classroom to the messy, open-ended work they face in engineering practice. The study described in this talk was part of a broader institutional change initiative where we are attempting to address this issue by creating assignments that better resemble the work done in engineering practice in 11 core studio courses. These group activities cast students in the role of professional engineers working on design projects, allowing multiple solution paths. We want students to learn practices that will be useful to them as engineers. Practices are learned within contexts and through the use of PBL, our intent is to shift the context in which students learn foundational concepts.

In a qualitative case study, we analyzed the activity of three teams that were video recorded as they made progress on one such authentic task. Being a laboratory study, the students were taken out of the context of worrying about a grade. However, two of the teams initially responded using the types of practices and reasoning that corresponded to doing well in a class but do not directly transfer to engineering work. Adapting Dorothy Holland’s construct of figured worlds, we label this state of engagement as being in school world. On the other hand, one team’s activity reasonably coincided with engineering practice; we say they were engaged in engineering world.

When you have students do PBL, you ask students to navigate between these figured worlds. However, much of the students’ experiences in engineering programs resides in school world. In this study, we give them a PBL problem designed to have students engineering world thinking and examine what they do with it. We present two distinct forms of engagement, school world and engineering world. In this talk, we compare the activity, processes, interactions, and thinking in each figured world and show ways that engineering world is preferable to school world in better preparing students for practice

We also look at the ways activity from school world to engineering world evolves evolve and shift in this context and what we can learn about designing curricula to place students in engineering world. The two teams that showed similar patterns of beginning in school world wound up shifting into engineering world over the course of the activity. Shifts into engineering world are preceded by multiple unsuccessful bids by one team member who we label the engineering world bidder. We argue that it is not be a single event that shifts the team from school to engineering world, but rather a history of the team in activity, and that the failed bids contribute to building of dissatisfaction with school world practices. When they encounter a “snag” that school world practices cannot resolve, the team, as a collective, changed activity to engineering world. We also see a shift in participation from school world where a single high-status student directs the team’s activity to engineering world where participation shifts and is shared more evenly throughout the group.

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