With the implementation of the Framework for K12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards in the United States, engineering is increasingly prevalent in the pre-college classroom. A typical way to incorporate engineering into K12 education is through collaborative engineering design projects. This type of project typically requires students to present the group’s design work in a single representation, often a co-constructed physical object. This physical object is not perfectly representative of the group’s more abstract “design,” or their mental concept of their engineering solution. Though we expect that the physical artifact which a group creates is representative of a shared understanding among the group, from studies of engineering design with adults, we know that coming to this shared understanding of the problem, the team strategy, and the design artifact itself requires intense negotiation. Designers must communicate across all members of a team in order to establish roles and relationships, plan and change activities, gather and share information, generate and adopt concepts, and avoid and resolve conflict. Studies of elementary engineering education illustrate the ways in which young children manage these elements of designing together. However, questions remain around the issue of shared understanding. For instance, Is it necessary to come to a shared understanding to create a design artifact? What does the design artifact of a group without a shared understanding look like? How does it come to be?
In this study, we seek to describe cases from two classrooms where groups had different degrees of shared understanding of both the design process and artifact. In the third-grade classroom, students learned about animal habitats and survival to inform their solution to the problem of displaced animals in their local community due to habitat destruction from human developments. In the fourth-grade classroom, students informed their design of a roadside barrier to protect migratory birds from noise and light pollution on highways with an inquiry into the physics of light and sound and the structure and function of birds’ ears and eyes. Data sources for this descriptive study include video records of whole-class and team discourse, interviews with individual students, notebooks and other written artifacts, and photos of design constructions. We employ qualitative case study and microethnographic analysis techniques to explore the differing conceptions of the design artifacts.
In the third-grade focus group, there is near perfect agreement among team members about how the artifact came to be, whose ideas it comprises, and what each physical component represents. In the fourth-grade focus group, there is conflict and confusion about their artifact; students among the same group describe the functionality and evolution of their prototype differently. We also begin to examine the ways in which the introduction and implementation of the different design challenges may have influenced the cohesion of the groups’ design conceptualization. This work begins to unravel an implicit assumption that researchers and instructors may have about collaborative engineering work: that all members of a group have the same understanding of their design concept.
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