Authentic engineering practice is often introduced to students through engineering problem-solving in the classroom. These problems usually have a single, correct answer and fail to guide students’ problem framing against real-world parameters and constraints. In this paper, we present techno-economic modeling as a computer-based pedagogical tool in a sophomore chemical engineering course to connect students’ collective inquiry activities to real-world consequences. Engaging in inquiry with an interactive process modeling tool can help students frame engineering design problems by directing them to explore and consider specific details and how these relate to real problems. This work aligns well with inquiry-based approaches  and extends previous work, which focused on students’ exposure to uncertainties in engineering design . We conducted a study to illustrate how a techno-economic modeling tool can be used to enhance engineering reasoning within a collaborative environment. We aimed to answer the following research question:
How might techno-economic modeling enhance students’ ability to empathize with the communities for which they design?
An algae biofuel design challenge was embedded into the sophomore material and energy balances course (n=75 in 10 teams) at a Hispanic-serving research university in the Southwest US. Wikis were used as a supporting collaborative tool for students to visually and textually report their knowledge and decisions on the three design phases (growth of algal species, harvesting algae from water and extraction of oil from algae) of the challenge. Each team was assigned to investigate the economic feasibility of algal biofuel plant in a specific county. An open coding scheme was developed and used to analyze each teams' work on the economic feasibility of the algae biofuel plant. Descriptive statistics were also used to examine the data collected. Analyses revealed that all student teams investigated the effect of constraints, such as population size and resource availability on design parameters like the choice of carbon dioxide source and biofuel production rate. Teams used cost and environmental impact as critical decision criteria to make informed decisions about the various process technologies. Additionally, we found teams to be attentive to decisions that could adversely affect a community. We found the economic modeling supported the students to engage in design decision making akin to the professional practices of real-life engineers.
1. McElhaney, K.W., Chang, H.-Y. Chiu, J. L., Linn, M.C. (2015) Evidence for effective uses of dynamic visualisations in science curriculum materials, Studies in Science Education. 51:1.49-85
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