2009 Teaching and Learning Symposium

2:30-4:30 p.m., April 21, 2009
HUB Ballroom

Session Description



Considering context in engineering: Snapshots from the undergraduate years

Cynthia J. Atman, Ken Yasuhara, Deborah Kilgore,and Andrew Morozov (Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching)

Engineers must approach design problems with broad perspective, considering a wide range of contextual factors. The engineering community has clearly voiced this need through ABET accreditation guidelines and the National Academy of Engineering’s Engineer of 2020 report and Grand Challenges web site. Unfortunately, our research suggests that current engineering curricula are not sufficiently preparing undergraduate majors in this regard. This poster summarizes findings from the Academic Pathways Study, an extensive, longitudinal research project focused on the undergraduate engineering student experience. About 160 students at four institutions participated in the four-year, multi-method study. Underrepresented demographics were oversampled.

Part of the study focused on student consideration of context in design problem-solving. Employing a variety of data collection and analysis methods, both qualitative and quantitative, we assessed student consideration of multiple kinds of context for a given design problem: physical, conceptual, social, and even temporal. Borrowing from the sustainability literature, we used life cycle as a framework for assessing the extent to which students consider a designed object across time, from design and construction to operation to maintenance and, ultimately, disposal at the end of its life span.

In general, we found that beginning undergraduate engineering students only consider context to a modest degree when approaching design problems. Importantly, they do not appear to improve in this regard during the course of their engineering studies. At least in the first and second years, women consider context more than men do, but this gender difference diminishes by some measures in subsequent years. Our research contributes empirical evidence to ongoing discussions about how to improve undergraduate engineering curricula, as well as how to assess the success of these efforts. In addition, research instruments from our study have already been adapted for use in student assessment and program evaluation.



Index of Symposium Presenters