In a project to “re-situate” learning to better align student work at school with the work they will do in professional practice, the Department of Chemical Engineering at a large public university is implementing a new activity design in its studio classes. The revised studios incorporate authentic activities that are focused on contextualizing work in engineering practice. The intent is to create a need for students to use their engineering judgment to make decisions. In this research study, we compare student responses to a set of re-designed studios to the previous design to infer the degree to which they perceive their activity is shifting.
We adapt Pickering’s notions of free and forced moves from science practice to look at how students take up engineering practices. In free moves, students have authorship to come up with their own approach to solve a problem. Once the approach is selected, it is followed by a set of forced moves where the students are directed by disciplinary norms and practices to follow a specific path to get a “final answer.” It is our assertion that the first three years of the canonical chemical engineering curriculum focuses almost exclusively on forced moves. By shifting activity to provide authorship of free moves, we aim to more fully develop students’ engineering identity and make them more creative problem solvers. This study represents a first step towards these lofty goals by examining how students take up these new studio activities.
The context for this study is a 2nd year class serving chemical, biological, and environmental engineering students. Students attended a weekly studio of which approximately half used the redesigned pedagogy. After each studio, students were asked to fill out a two question survey with one free response question and one Likert scale question. The free response asked students to write down one thing that they learned from the studio. We report analysis from 207 participants across 10 studio activities.
Responses were coded as follows. Responses that indicated that the student learned how to solve the assigned problem with no references to the ways that the knowledge or skills could be applied to other problems were labeled “Isolated.” Other responses where the student extended what had been learned to beyond the current problem statement were labeled “Integrated.” In addition, responses that connected to the engineering contexts in which the studios were framed were labeled “Contextual.” This coding scheme was independently applied by two researchers. A Cohen’s kappa value of 0.76 was achieved suggesting a suitably reliable coding scheme.
In the first studio, which was a redesigned studio, 57% of the responses were Isolated and 34% were Integrated. The remaining responses were not related to the activity preformed. In addition, 19% of the responses were Contextual. The same coding scheme will be used to analyze the other 9 studios. Through this analysis, we aim to infer the degree to which designs that contextualize engineering work and encourage free moves help students place the material they use in an engineering context.
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