A Community of Innovators

Research in Engineering Student Learning

Integration of Research and Teaching

Knowledge Integration of Learners

  • Teaching challenges of engineering faculty
  • Strategies and resources for engineering educators
  • Inclusive teaching - integration of diversity
  • Maintaining an active test bed

Description of project strand. In our research we seek to characterize the instructional challenges of engineering educators and their approaches to teaching. We also seek to understand how to help engineering faculty continuously enhance their teaching effectiveness, and how to incorporate research on engineering student learning into such efforts.

Relevance of project strand. The need for reform in the way that future engineers are trained has been widely acknowledged for some time. Yet changes in the way that engineering educators teach has been relatively small and slower than expected, and the calls for reform continue.

Additionally, there is an extensive body of information, resources, and services available to engineering faculty and graduate students to support instructional enhancement efforts. However, the majority of engineering educators have not taken advantage of the full potential of these available resources. Our efforts help engineering educators understand research on teaching and learning and identify ways that research can affect engineering student learning. This work provides information and strategies that enable faculty to work in a variety of instructional contexts to address the learning needs of different kinds of students.

Although there are a variety of efforts to promote improvements in engineering education, there is concern that the change is neither dramatic nor swift enough. Many engineering education centers focus their efforts on delivery of services and information for engineering faculty. At CELT, we not only provide services, we also study, present, collaborate with faculty, and conduct research on engineering faculty and faculty development.

Significant findings. Consistent with our overarching description, our work in this strand addresses topics such as research to understand educator needs and challenges, research to understand how to help educators advance their teaching ability, and efforts to help educators use research on engineering student learning to inform their practice.

Documenting the teaching challenges and concerns of engineering educators. In our work, we aim to characterize teaching concerns both by quantitative/qualitative research and action research (reflecting on our own experiences). In an ongoing study, we are debriefing an instructional consultant after she works with engineering faculty on their teaching concerns. Although our data collection and data analysis are not yet complete, preliminary results suggest that common concerns include a) teaching students how to learn, b) increasing student confidence in the student/instructor relationship, c) understanding cultural differences in approaches to education, d) creating tests that are true measures of student learning, and e) supporting student collaboration, especially online (Turns et al., 2003). In other work, we have learned that reactions to student rating issues run deep and that sharing actual research results concerning student ratings helps engender a productive discussion on the subject (Linse, 2003).

Bridging research on engineering student learning and engineering teaching practice. In this collection of work, we have explored aspects of the "research-to-teaching" challenge. From this work, we know that design educators who write papers on engineering design education are rarely citing the work of scholars in the fields of design and design learning (Martin et al., 2002). We have found that it can be feasible and valuable to use taxonomies of educational objectives to organize research on engineering student learning, so that educators can then use the results in aspects of their teaching such as the development of assessment tools (Safoutin et al., 2000). In working with faculty, we have discovered that there are educators eager to explore actual instances of research on engineering student learning and grapple with how that research can be used in the development of instructional experiences (Turns et al., 2002). More generally, we have demonstrated that strategies for bridging research and teaching can be characterized in terms of how tightly they are tied to the original research and/or how tightly they specify instructional practice (Turns et al., in press). Further, we have found it valuable to pursue a collection of activities along such a "research to practice" spectrum (Turns et al., in press; Harper et al., 2003; Atman and Linse, 2003; Linse, 2002).

Inclusive teaching, integration of diversity.Diversity and inclusive teaching are pressing topics in engineering education. In our work, we have found that it is challenging but also possible to orchestrate meaningful discussions concerning diversity among engineering educators (Linse and Turns, 2004; Jacobson et al, 2003). We are also finding significant evidence that issues of diversity need to be addressed, in engineering, in ways that are different from how the issues are addressed in other disciplines if we want engineering educators to make significant progress in addressing such issues in their teaching (Reddick et al., in press; Jacobson et al., 2003).

Resources for engineering educators. We are interested in understanding the properties and value of various resources available for engineering educators. For example, we have explored the types of websites available to engineering educators and analyzed example websites in order to identify best practices and areas for improvement (Turns et al., 2003). We found that the websites we analyzed did a good job in a) considering usability in their design, b) providing a wide range of information, and c) designing using varied underlying models. We also identified three areas for which designers of websites for engineering educators should pay particular attention: a) providing orientation information on all pages, b) providing available and effective search functionality, and c) paying particular attention to the information structure and how it is revealed through interface.

Modeling change in engineering teaching. We are interested in identifying and describing the processes by which individual educators, groups of educators, departments, colleges of engineering, and the entire engineering community change teaching practices. Through research into the general issue of theories of change, we have found that many models exist and that the models are often seemingly incommensurate.

Maintaining an active testbed. We have found that an active testbed, consisting of activities such as individual consultations, workshops, and working groups, leads to the emergence of many ideas. The references below reflect the scope and nature of the scholarship emerging from the testbed.

Our research is funded by an NSF grant from the Engineering directorate (to understand the teaching challenges of engineering faculty and strategies to support those challenges) and a Center for Learning and Teaching grant (CAEE) to promote effective decision making in engineering education. Additionally, a portion of our current work is funded through our development efforts at the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching which includes public and private donations.