WIP: Understanding Ambiguity in Engineering Problem Solving
This work in progress paper poses the research question, what are the qualitatively different ways that novice and expert engineers experience ambiguity. Engineers are frequently confronted with complex, unique, and challenging problems. Many of our most pressing engineering problems contain ambiguous elements, and a core activity of engineering is being able to solve these complex problems effectively. Within the existing literature, many engineering problems are dichotomously characterized as either well-structured (unambiguous) or ill-structured (ambiguous). Ambiguity, if it is mentioned at all in the problem classification, is only identified as a structural element. Ambiguity has not yet been adequately operationalized in the engineering problem solving literature. As a result there is little research specifying different types of ambiguity or how problem solvers may experience ambiguity differently within the same problem. Without a better understanding of ambiguity in problem solving, it is difficult to develop educational approaches that will teach students how to successfully navigate ambiguous problems.
To date, a pilot study consisting of four interviews has been conducted with senior civil engineering students. Artifact elicitation is being used, which allows participants to bring problems with them that they consider to be ambiguous. This technique allows them to recall their experiences with solving the problem and describe their experiences in greater detail. The data collection is ongoing; therefore, our results are not complete. Two preliminary categories have been identified: absence/uncertainty and role/context. Absence/uncertainty refers to students perceiving that they lack information. For example, they did not know the values for variables in the problem, did not understand the relationship between variables, or lacked knowledge needed to solve the problem. Role/context refers to students perceiving aspects of the problem-solving process to be unclear. Within this category students were unsure of the expectations from the instructor, the criteria they should have used to solve the problem, or what the outcomes of the process should have been. They were also unsure of their role in group problem solving. Once the data set is complete, we will analyze it using phenomenography in order to understand the variations in how students experience ambiguity in engineering problem solving.
Engineering problem solvers that are confident in handling ambiguity are needed to solve real world, complex problems. This project will help to inform future studies of engineering problem solving. Having a deeper understanding of the difficulties that problem solvers go through will ultimately help us provide better instructional materials, methods, and tool kits for teaching students how to solve ambiguous engineering problems.
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June 22, 2020, and to all visitors after the conference ends on June 26, 2021
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