Problem Solving in Class and the Workplace

By McNeill, Nathan J.; Douglas, Elliot P. et al. | ASEE Prism, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Problem Solving in Class and the Workplace


McNeill, Nathan J., Douglas, Elliot P., Koro-Ljungberg, Mirka, Therriault, David J., Krause, Ilana, ASEE Prism


Solving problems that are complex and illstructured is a central activity of engineering practice. Graduates of engineering programs accredited by ABET are expected to be able to solve problems requiring consideration of "realistic constraints," including: "economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability." However, in their core classes undergraduate engineering students most often encounter well-constrained problems that lack real-world contextualization. Common classroom problems are those at the end of textbook chapters which are designed to test knowledge of important concepts but are limited in scope.

Although various kinds of beliefs, such as self-efficacy (belief in one's abilities) and epistemic beliefs (beliefs about the nature of knowledge), have been found to play a role in one's problem-solving abilities, we felt that it was important to examine more broadly the beliefs and assumptions that engineering students hold about problem solving within the context of an engineering curriculum. We conducted interviews with 19 junior and senior materials engineering students following a problem-solving task. This task involved four engineering problems which varied in terms of both their structure and complexity. In the interviews, we asked students about the problem-solving processes that they used and the assumptions and beliefs that guided their problem-solving processes. We analyzed transcripts from nine of the interviews using grounded theory to construct a conceptual model of students' beliefs about problem solving. The nine transcripts that we analyzed were selected to represent as wide a range of problem-solving beliefs as possible.

The conceptual model that resulted from our analysis has five major components: the problem-solving process itself, the role of classroom problems, the role of "real" workplace problems, personal characteristics that affect problem solving, and resources that assist problem solving. Students believed that the problem-solving process leads to an attainable solution and that it requires assumption making, justification of decisions, and visualizations. Students made a sharp distinction between classroom problems and workplace problems. They strongly believed that the two types of problems have different goals. Classroom problems are for the purpose of obtaining a grade, while workplace problems are for the purpose of solving an engineering problem. As one student explained:

"One of my best friends is doing a co-op right now... he uses very little from his... classes. They teach you everything there [on the job], you learn everything from experience. …

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