Many engineering problems can be viewed as “sustainability problems”, and thus problem-solving requires knowledge from multiple domains (technical, environmental, economic, and social). Engineering students should be educated about sustainability and be trained to apply sustainability concepts in design in order to produce better products, processes, infrastructure, etc. Students gain knowledge in relevant domains from a variety of undergraduate classes (both engineering and non-engineering), yet they have difficulty connecting knowledge from across classes or domains to fully analyze problems and evaluate sustainability trade-offs. Operating under this premise, the first goal of our research is to help students apply (or supplement) their knowledge relating to sustainable design dimensions (i.e., technical, environmental, economic, social) to complex, engineering problems, such as the ones they encounter during capstone design and will encounter in the real-world. The second goal is to improve assessment of students’ abilities to apply sustainable engineering design concepts across different problems or design challenges. We hypothesize that with guided practice and feedback, engineering undergraduate students will become better at drawing on diverse knowledge domains and integrating it when they are faced with new, complex problems.
Cognitive flexibility theory (CFT) and adaptive expertise provide constructs for assessing students’ knowledge transfer and connection building that is needed to adequately address sustainability problems. The primary objective of this work is to use CFT and adaptive expertise criteria to guide both learning and assessment of sustainable design. Our paper will present progress and preliminary findings in two areas: (1) Identifying appropriate measures of knowledge transfer/cognitive flexibility/adaptive expertise that apply to engineering design tasks and (2) Developing and adapting instructional materials and assessments to measure and help students improve ability to transfer knowledge to/across sustainable design problems. Specifically, we will describe our efforts to refine measures of cognitive flexibility and adaptive expertise by measuring improved cognitive functions (e.g., study of flexibility/performance using an electroencephalogram or EEG), an approach which is underdeveloped in engineering education research, particularly for complex problem-solving like sustainable design. We will also present progress on new or adapted assessment tools that focus on direct measures of student domain knowledge in different contexts (e.g., automated scoring of concept maps) and correct application of knowledge (e.g., cross-disciplinary sustainable design rubrics). We are focusing on practical assessment tools that are transferable to other institutions and across engineering departments, and also grounded in evidence (e.g., characterizing brain waves measured with an EEG to triangulate with measurements from learning assessments).
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