Problem Solving in Class and the Workplace
Students strongly differentiate between the two.
By Nathan J. McNeill, Elliot P. Douglas, Mirka Koro-Ljungberg, David J. Therriault, and Ilana Krause
Solving problems that are complex and ill-structured 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.”
Students believed that personal characteristics such as conceptual understanding, intuition, and confidence play important roles in success at problem solving. And students described how successful problem solvers access a wide range of resources, including textbooks, software tools, Internet resources, other people, representations of various types, as well as memory. One student explained:
“When you’re solving problems you always need to make sure that you have appropriate resources before you attempt to try and solve the problem.”
Previous studies have used stage models to describe a progressive development of beliefs about problem solving. In contrast, our conceptual model indicates that students’ beliefs depend on the contexts in which problems are encountered. Students in our study believed that the approaches they take to problem solving, as well as the resources that they access, are limited within the academic context, whereas the problems encountered in the “real world” can be solved using a variety of approaches that require accessing a wider range of resources.
Our prior work has demonstrated that students have difficulty solving open-ended problems requiring multiple decisions to reach a solution. In combination with the conceptual model from this study, our findings suggest that the types of problems students solve in their classes should be expanded. Students need to encounter early in their education problems that allow them to grapple with competing constraints, assumptions, and multiple solutions, even in introductory courses such as statics or thermodynamics. Some scaffolding will be needed to develop students’ abilities to solve these kinds of problems, but doing so will better prepare them both for the capstone design experience and engineering practice.
Nathan J. McNeill is an instructor in the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado Mesa University Mechanical Engineering Partnership Program; Elliot P. Douglas is associate professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida; Mirka Koro-Ljungberg is professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University; David J. Therriault is associate professor in the School of Human Development & Organizational Studies in Education, University of Florida; Ilana Krause is an undergraduate student in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Florida. This is excerpted from “Undergraduate Students’ Beliefs about Engineering Problem-solving” In the October, 2016 Journal of Engineering Education. (National Science Foundation grant DRL-0909976)