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Connecting Science Concepts and Engineering Practices: Supporting Student Understanding of Energy Transformation


It is often claimed that engineering projects improve student achievement in mathematics and science, but research on this topic has shown that many projects do not live up to the claim (Teacher Advisory Council, 2009). Ideally, undertaking a science project should be motivating, while also helping students to understand the interplay between science concepts (like energy transformation) and engineering design decisions. This dissertation research investigates ways to integrate engineering practices and science concepts (like energy transformation) in classroom settings. I investigate ways to integrate the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science and engineering practices while simultaneously expanding the knowledge integration theory (Linn & Eylon, 2011). I refine knowledge integration design principles in classroom studies, comparing alternative forms of instruction where students integrate engineering design and science disciplinary concepts. I accomplish this by creating new technologies to support students in building solar ovens while testing their design ideas in an interactive computer model that connects science concepts and design decisions.

When students build a physical model they may neglect the scientific basis for their decisions, instead focusing on details of construction that may be superficial rather than scientifically based. Educational tools, like interactive computer models, can help students connect science principles and design decisions by making mechanisms such as energy transformation visible. The NGSS envision that instruction would combine practices including modeling, data, analysis, computational thinking, and design to enable students to integrate their scientific and engineering ideas (NGSS Lead States, 2013). This research identifies optimal ways to integrate science and engineering practices by taking advantage of interactive models, automated guidance for student short essays, and supports for making evidence centered decisions. The investigations are guided by the knowledge integration theory and the results expand the theory into the engineering domain.

In this dissertation, I present five empirical chapters. Each study uses a solar ovens curriculum in which students use a virtual model to design and explore energy transformation, then build and test a physical solar oven. These studies investigate ways to support students in integrating their ideas about energy transformation with ideas about engineering design. The first empirical chapter investigates how computer models function in hands-on curriculum to aid in the knowledge integration process. The second and third empirical chapters investigate supports for students while they use computer models. These chapters document how students interact with the model. Because the computer model aids in both design and reflection, there are three chapters devoted to investigations of how the computer model aids students in knowledge integration. A fourth empirical chapter investigates the non-normative, yet common, idea that shiny or dark objects “attract” light to them, causing them to heat up. I first collect data about the ideas students present around this non-normative idea, then present a method to automatically score student written responses for the presence of this idea. This automatic scoring algorithm could support the development of automated guidance that could then encourage students to refine their ideas. The fifth empirical chapter investigates two ways to frame the curriculum. Since the goal of this curriculum is to integrate both science content ideas and engineering design ideas, I investigate two different frameworks for presenting the curriculum – science-centered or engineering-centered.

Together, these chapters suggest guidelines for the structure of hands-on projects that aim to teach both science concepts and engineering design. First, creating dynamic computer models that allow students to test their design ideas has proven useful in helping students integrate science disciplinary ideas and engineering practices. However, students need scaffolding to integrate these ideas and practices. To ensure that the virtual models inform student designs in a meaningful way (and vice versa), there should be careful consideration about when during the curriculum they are introduced.

Including science content in a meaningful way and supporting the integration of science ideas is also critical for the success of projects that are intended to support the integration of science and engineering. To help students make sense of key scientific phenomena, designers need to identify ideas that are challenging for students to distinguish among, like that of light propagation (e.g., is light reflected, absorbed, or “attracted”?). Creating opportunities for students to follow the knowledge integration process is important with these types of ideas, in order to give students the opportunity to integrate their disparate and perhaps contradictory ideas. Specifically, students need to generate multiple ideas so that those ideas can be inspected, added to through the use of inquiry activities, and then they can distinguish among their entire corpus of ideas. This process helps students to make sense of their ideas; the addition of an engineering project provides further evidence for students to reflect upon.

It is also important to consider the goals for learning when framing curriculum as either an engineering or a science project. Different ways of framing the same type of project may lead to different learning outcomes. If a project is framed around engineering design, students are likely to develop stronger engineering practices, but their understanding of scientific content may not be as deep. If a project is framed as a scientific investigation, students may integrate their science ideas, but not develop a strong sense of engineering practices.

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