The Design and Experimental Evaluation of a Scaffolded Software Environment to Improve Engineering Students' Disciplinary Problem-Solving Skills
Hundhausen, Christopher, Agarwal, Pawan, Zollars, Richand, Carter, Adam, Journal of Engineering Education
Introductory gateway engineering courses are notorious for their high attrition rates. Deficiencies in students' problem-solving processes may contribute to their failure in these courses. In an empirical study of student problem solving, we observed that students struggle because of misconceptions regarding the basic syntax and semantics of disciplinary diagrams and corresponding mathematical equations.
We hypothesize that a scaffolded software environment that provides dynamically-generated feedback on the syntactic and semantic correctness of students' evolving disciplinary diagrams and mathematical equations can improve engineering students' problem-solving abilities.
We iteratively developed ChemProV, a software environment to assist chemical engineering students in solving material balance problems. To evaluate ChemProV's effectiveness, we performed two between-subjects experimental studies. The first study compared a preliminary version of the ChemProV to pen-and-paper. The second study compared a redesigned version of ChemProV with dynamic feedback to the same version of ChemProV without dynamic feedback.
While it did not uncover any significant differences, the first study provided insight into how to improve ChemProV's dynamic feedback mechanism. The second study found that the "feedback" version of ChemProV promoted a statistically-significant advantage in problem-solving accuracy, significantly more time-on-task, and a transfer-of-training to an unscaffolded problem-solving situation.
A scaffolded software environment like ChemProV can serve as a valuable aid in helping students learn engineering problem-solving skills. Its software design approach can be used as a model for designing educationally-effective software environments for other engineering disciplines.
problem solving, software scaffolding, visualization
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The demand for engineering graduates is on the rise, yet engineering degree programs continue to struggle to retain the students who enter their programs. Indeed, introductory gateway courses typically lose 35 percent of their students (Gainen, 1995), and fewer than 50 percent of students who enter engineering degree programs go on to graduate (Borrego, Padilla, Zhang, Ohland, 8c T. J. Anderson, 2005). These data suggest students' success or failure in an engineering program is related to their ability to pass introductory gateway courses. Such courses typically introduce students to an engineering approach to solving disciplinary problems - an approach they will need to use throughout their careers as engineers (e.g., Felder, 1986). Why, then, do so many students fail to complete introductory gateway courses?
Possible Reasons for Failure
Student failure in gateway engineering courses has been linkfid to many factors, ranging from deficiencies in teacher training and pedagogical approaches (e.g., Custer ôcDaugherty, 2009), to the lack of an adequate learning community (e.g., Besana 8c Dettoli, 2004), to individual student differences (e.g., Betgin, Reilly, 8cTraynor, 2005), to mismatches in cognitive learning styles (e.g., Felder Oc Spurlin, 2005). Another possibility, based on past research into differences in novice and expert problem-solving (Chi, Glaser, 8c Rees, 1982; Gick, 1986; e.g., Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999), is diat deficiencies in students' problem-solving processes contribute to their failure in gateway courses. In order to explore how students go about solving disciplinary problems, and why they fail, we conducted an exploratory empirical study in which we recorded four pairs of introductory chemical engineering students as they solved material balance problems (Zollars, Hundhausen, 8c Stefik, 2007). This process involves diree key steps: (a) creating a process flow diagram diat models die chemical process described in die material balance problem; (b) creating a corresponding system of mathematical equations; and (c) solving die equations for die unknowns. …