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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Engineering Learning: Cross-Community Design, Development, and Implementation of Engineering Design Challenges at a Science Center

  • Author(s): Wang, Jennifer
  • Advisor(s): Agogino, Alice M.
  • Linn, Marcia C.
  • et al.

The perception of engineering as intimidating contributes to a lack of diversity among aspiring engineers. My research develops a deeper understanding of tinkering spaces at public science centers as an accessible pathway towards engineering. I engage in cross-community collaborations with college engineering students, industry engineers, and informal science educators to design tinkering spaces, and I analyze the effect of these spaces on the learner experience. This dissertation explores these collaborators' processes of developing engineering design challenges as well as how these processes affect the students' and engineers' understanding of learning and engineering. A variety of observations, including ethnographic case studies of the cross-community design and a comparison of the visitor experience in the space with and without the cross-community design, are synthesized into practical guidelines for creating engineering tinkering spaces.

Focusing on visitors' design processes and perceptions, I find that (1) visitors are not just playing randomly, rather many are engineering deliberately; (2) visitors initially do not necessarily identify as engineers or understand engineering, and mostly associate engineering with building; and (3) constructing designs in these activities leads to the construction of identity and agency as engineers. In particular, the physical materials and the presence of other designs in the space play a key role in visitors' problem scoping, information gathering, and concept generation. Thus, the structure of these tinkering environments empowers visitors to engineer and to continue these experiences. The cross-community collaborators contribute uniquely to the design of the challenges: the educators contribute methods for accessible learning, while the industry engineers and engineering students contribute technical authenticity. Using a human-centered design process with science center visitors, the collaborators grow to view learning as a mutual experience involving contributions from the learners. Visitors at the collaborations' challenges engage in and identify broader engineering behaviors and are better able to connect the challenges to the real world when compared to visitors at challenges without cross-community design. These results provide the basis for guidelines to improve the perception of engineering through tinkering. My dissertation contributes to knowledge on the design of and learning in these tinkering spaces, particularly how learners' engineering design processes serve as a pathway towards becoming future engineers.

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