Research examines how engineers learn concepts

PULLMAN – Engineering education has been around for several centuries, but for the first time, WSU researchers are examining which engineering concepts engineers actually use and how they apply those concepts in the workplace.

Shane Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has received a $400,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award for a four-year project to better understand how practicing civil engineers learn engineering concepts. He then hopes to develop a model of engineering thought about these concepts and research-based curricular materials.
Traditionally, engineering curricula have been focused on concepts that professors, who may or may not have design experience, think are important. Students learn about concepts such as fluid mechanics, shear stress, conservation of energy, momentum, and plenty of equations.
“But we don’t know how engineers actually think about those concepts,’’ Brown said.
Exploring how experience affects understanding
For instance, when someone mentions a word such as dog, we conjure up a mental image. However, the idea of a “dog” varies dramatically between people, depending on their experiences.
So how do practicing engineers think about shear stress? Do they understand concepts in a way that is completely different from what is actually taught in the classroom? What do they picture in their minds as they are working on the design of a building or a bridge? How do they use a concept to develop efficient and innovative designs?
“It’s a story we relate to, not an equation,’’ Brown said. “We want to know the story that engineers think of and present that in the curriculum.’’
As part of the project, Brown will be surveying about 1,000 practicing civil engineers with several years of work experience. The engineers will take a “concept inventory,” a test that examines their understanding of specific concepts. Brown will then conduct in-depth interviews with about 100 engineers from those surveyed, as he finds patterns in their understanding of concepts.
A graduate student also will intern at an engineering firm to conduct further research on engineers’ “shared and situated knowledge’’ of fundamental civil engineering concepts, Brown said.
Applying knowledge from the classroom to the workplace
The project builds on work that Brown and his colleagues have done that examines how engineering students learn and misunderstand concepts taught in the classroom.
“Given that one of the primary objectives of engineering education is to train engineers for the engineering workplace, it is vital to determine what concepts are important to engineering design,’’ Brown said. “This study is significant because it fundamentally advances the field by developing a model of conceptual understanding in civil engineers.’’
Brown said he is operating under the premise that engineering practice is good and that engineers do understand fundamental concepts.
“But if I am wrong, and practicing engineers still have misconceptions, we should have the evidence to improve it,’’ he said.
Brown hopes the project builds a meaningful link between engineering education and engineering practice.
“I think we’re getting right to the heart of it – we’re finding out what engineers know and how to get that into the curriculum,’’ he said.
Brown is one of 53 engineering educators selected to participate in the upcoming National Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers of Engineering Education program. The symposium, scheduled for Dec. 13-16 in Irvine, Calif., will focus on ways to ensure that students learn the engineering fundamentals, the expanding knowledge base of new technology and the skills necessary to be an effective engineer or engineering researcher.