Using a Virtual Engineering Internship to Model the Complexity of Engineering Design Problems

This proposal seeks to understand a fundamental question regarding engineering design: What is the relationship between the mathematical complexity and the cognitive complexity of the solution to a given problem?

Based on prior work in developing authentic learning simulations as well as analysis of complex STEM thinking, the project examines how engineering design problems enable students to find quality solutions to complex problems, and also the ways that the construction of those problem spaces can promote thinking like an engineer.

With prior NSF funding, the investigators developed STEM learning simulations in several domains. Each simulation has at its core a simulated design problem. Specific to this proposal is the simulation game Nephrotex, in which students role play as interns in an engineering firm developing nanotechnology-based membranes for a hemodialysis ultrafiltration system. This game has been developed and tested, and has shown positive impact on students. Currently, Nephrotex is used in first-year engineering courses at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Pennsylvania to help attract and retain women in engineering majors.

The study also measures the cognitive complexity of a problem in terms of the extent to which it leads to engineering thinking. The project is grounded in the epistemic frame hypothesis, which suggests that thinking like an engineer requires having an epistemic frame composed of skills (the things engineers do), knowledge (the understandings that engineers share), values (the beliefs that engineers hold), identity (the way engineers see themselves), and epistemology (the warrants that engineers use to justify actions). Critically, however, the theory argues that engineers do not simply have a set of skills, knowledge, values, and so on, but that these elements of the epistemic frame are linked together in ways that are characteristic of engineering thinking.

In a virtual design experience such as Nephrotex the problem space is completely determined and its parameters can be easily adjusted; therefore, simulations of authentic design problems are an ideal laboratory for understanding what makes engineering design problems more or less complex—and thus how problems can be adapted for students at different levels of engineering expertise and experience throughout the K¬16 spectrum.

This project will address a pedagogical and theoretical issue in using engineering learning games to transform engineering teaching and learning in ways that broaden the boundaries of schools and disciplines. The proposed activities will broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields by improving persistence of non-majority students in STEM fields, especially women, as demonstrated by prior work in this line of research. The results will be disseminated to the learning sciences, engineering education, and educational outreach communities.



David Shaffer




Completed on August 31, 2015