This research paper is part of a larger reform effort intended to shift student activity from abstract decontextualized assignments to meaningful, consequential learning where students are placed in the role of practicing engineers working on teams. We believe this shift will more effectively develop the next generation of engineering practitioners, innovators, and entrepreneurs. In this study, we analyze video data to compare the ways that three student teams take up work in one reform activity that we have developed. Our research questions are:
1. To what degree do student teams engage in engineering world and in school world as they complete the microfluidic energy balance activity?
2. How do these figured worlds influence their sociotechnical processes towards task completion?
We frame analysis in terms of overlapping “figured worlds” - the social systems of identities, relationships, and positions that participants take on as they work. The activity studied here asks students to step into "engineering world," using engineering principles and practices to make progress on a meaningful task. However, the activity also resides in “school world” where tasks have an exchange value: successfully completed work can translate into a desired grade. For student engineers, the two figured worlds co-exist but the skills and approaches that lead to success in each do not necessarily coincide.
In this clinical study, we analyzed video data of several teams engaging with an engineering task: the design a heat exchanger system for a microfluidic device to automate a bioreaction process for point of care use. Study participants were current students who had recently completed a required core sophomore-level undergraduate course, Energy Balances, at a large public university. The participants were placed in teams of three to four while two faculty members with engineering education expertise facilitated. In this way, we attempted to mimic elements of our studio classroom setting but in a more controlled manner. Three teams were selected for analysis based on their differing levels of participation in each of the figured worlds. An emergent coding process was iteratively developed as a collaboration between a learning scientist and two chemical engineering educators.
While the activity was developed to provide an authentic context and the clinical setting enabled a low stress and supportive environment, teams constructed an understanding of the task on a spectrum from school world to engineering world. Team 1 showed accountability primarily to school world norms; self, sequential, and co-construction reasoning and sense-making processes were minimized by strategic thinking to “get an answer.” Team 2 spent most of their time in engineering world, negotiating periods of confusion and contributing different perspectives, leading to constructive overt activities and accountability to engineering norms. Team 3 initially approached the task in school world, where significant periods of confusion led to a “jumping around” of procedural activity. With time their activity shifted more to engineering world. Across teams, we found that the richness of technical design discourse (hypotheses, justifications, reflections…), heuristics used, and social interactions were directly affected by the figured world (engineering world or school world) in which the student team was situated. Moreover, inclination towards a figured world depended, in part, on the resources the students bring (e.g., procedural competency, conceptual fluency) as well as the instructional practices of the facilitator.
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