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Research in Engineering Student Learning

Knowledge Integration of Learners

Knowledge Integration of Learners

  • Knowledge integration - within and across domains
  • Conceptions of profession
  • Portfolios
  • Reflective practice
  • Assessment and feedback

Description of project strand. In our research we seek to characterize how engineering students integrate knowledge gained through classes and other learning experiences, to characterize the relationship of this knowledge integration with the development of a professional engineering identity, to understand the effectiveness of current approaches to promoting knowledge integration, and to ultimately develop and evaluate instruction to enhance knowledge integration.

Relevance of project strand. To become effective practitioners, engineering students need to acquire an extensive amount of knowledge and to integrate that knowledge in expert-like ways. The engineering education community needs insight into how engineering students integrate knowledge (or fail to) in order to guide the design of curricular materials. Both students and the engineering education community can benefit from interventions that promote knowledge integration.

As illustrated in the figure, current educational practice involves breaking the knowledge of the discipline into discrete units that are taught in the courses of a curriculum. The idea is that students will integrate the ideas from the individual courses back into a coherent whole (see figure, bottom right). However, a danger is that students fail to see the connections among the ideas resulting in students with disconnected and possibly inert knowledge (see figure, bottom left).

Significant findings. Characterizing integration of professional knowledge: Visions in civil & industrial engineering. Our earliest work in this area consisted of a collection of small studies in which we sought to understand aspects of professional knowledge. For example, in one study, we asked civil engineering students to list the ideas that come to mind when prompted with the term "civil and environmental engineering". In the analysis, we assigned the terms of the list to the different EC2000 learning outcomes in order to explore the breadth of student's understanding of their engineering discipline (Turns et al. 2000). We discovered that some students have a broad conception of the discipline, as evidenced by word associated lists that address most or all of the 13 ABET learning outcomes, while other students have a more limited understanding of the profession, as evidence by word association links covering approximately half of the 13 ABET learning outcomes and including primarily technical knowledge topics.

In another exercise, we asked civil engineering students to identify issues that would be associated with a local bridge building project and also to identify the team that would be needed (Turns et al., 2001). The preliminary results suggest that students can think broadly about the problem when identifying issues. However, the teams that students suggested included mostly engineers and did not seem to reflect the multidisciplinary nature of the issues they identified.

We have also asked students to construct concept maps (node-arc diagrams depicting the relationships among concepts) in order to explore the extent to which students' knowledge is integrated (Atman, 2001). We have found evidence of students with tightly structured professional knowledge (i.e., concept maps with strong and meaningful interconnections among concepts) as well as students with disconnected or fragmented professional knowledge (i.e., concept maps in which some terms are not integrated at all and other terms are more loosely connected).

Designing and evaluating complementary capstone experiences. We have experimented with the design of senior-level courses that focus specifically on professional knowledge as a whole and knowledge integration as a theme. One course was organized around a collaborative concept mapping activity where teams iterated weekly on concept maps of civil engineering (Turns et al. 2000, Atman and Turns, 1999). A second course was organized around the thirteen ABET learning outcomes and involved an individual "explain IE to another audience" project (Turns et al. 2001). Collectively, the results of these experimental course offerings have highlighted the differences between what students believe prepares them for professional practice and what faculty and industry practitioners believe prepares them, and also the individual differences among students about what they believe prepares them for professional practice. These mismatches manifested themselves in students' reactions to guest lecturers (Turns et al, 2000), students' reactions to specific activities (Turns et al., 2000; Turns and Atman, 2001), and students' mixed reactions to the courses overall (Turns et al., 2000; Turns and Atman, 2001).

Exploring engineering students' conceptions of their profession. With a goal of gaining deeper insight into the issue of how engineering students understand their profession, we have collected and analyzed concept maps of industrial engineering generated by sophomore, junior, and senior students in industrial engineering. While we have failed to find statistical differences across student level in the number of concepts included in the maps, we have found statistical differences across student level in the number of concepts from an original word association that students ultimately incorporated into the map (Turns et al., in progress; Turns, 2003; Adams et al., 2001). This result suggests that sophomores are learning concepts faster than they are building their conceptual structure. As part of this work, we have worked to educate others about the value of concept maps (Turns et al., 2000a; Turns et al, 2000b).

Using portfolios to promote knowledge integration. This project began recently. As a result, we do not yet have findings to report. We plan to report findings on a) the extent to which portfolio construction promotes knowledge integration in engineering students and b) the character of students' conceptual structures in engineering, as revealed through the professional portfolios they develop and the commentary they provide on these portfolios.

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 work is funded through our development efforts at the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching which includes public and private donations. See our publications section to view our publications.