Thursday, June 24, 2010

Distinguished Lecture: Problem Solving in Engineering Education

David Jonassen, Missouri University
Problem solving ability is more important then ability to write an exam in a blue book. If you want student to learn take the numbers away. What kind of problems do engineering students learn to solve? Story problems taught by worked examples where they learn to mimic process not meaning. Students are not learning what the equations mean and they need to understand the problems qualitatively. Jonassen’s feels there are issues with conceptual understanding due to over reliance of instructors on quantitative processes.

To help students he suggests instructors represent problems as structure maps, asking students to relate concepts together. Understanding nature of the problem is often superfluous for students who are focused on the answer and the grade. Ask them to step back and look at problems conceptually. Use analogies. Help them understand causal relationships using animations, simulations, causal diagrams, asking causal questions. Get them to transfer concepts to solve everyday problems. Simulations alone are not enough for learning so build in reflective and causal modeling. Causal diagrams or chains can illustrate problems for students. Follow up with causal reasoning questions such as prediction and argumentation.

They use ASK systems, TeachNET: A Resource for Engineering Teachers, real world examples and case studies.  Structure a dialog with reflection in action.

Now for an example. Within a radiation protection technical curriculum instructor’s created a series of questions about the daily work, common tasks and knowledge required of a technician. Responses are provided with videos of professionals. A standard learning outcome for any course is to get students to ask meaningful questions.

Another strategy is to get students to build models or model problems with concept maps. Students can be charged with building expert systems where a demonstrated need to articulate questions and rules is needed. Serious conceptual brain work for students and but can be time consuming! Systems modeling is also difficult but meaningful for students.

Argumentation another method to try, one example he used is code enforcement for learning engineering ethics. Instructor’s presented different perspectives and theoretical approaches and gave students a task to review and develop meaningful argumentation. This is a remedial strategy for correcting misconceptions on well-structured problems (see his recent paper on this topic for more detail).  Help students create counterargument and rebuttal.

Questioning students for metacognition forces students to reflect and regulate their own understanding. Have you solved similar problems, what strategies, or steps are needed to solve, and so on. Ask students to classify problems/questions. Text editing problems can be useful and provide impactful learning. Add extra or remove information from a question or specific problem then ask students if there’s sufficient information to respond. He suggests giving students practice first at “text editing” problems. These are very challenging for students.

Problem posing seems like a fun way to reinforce learning. Show picture and ask students to develop problem around it (for instance, soccer player on field in play and what physics concepts are also at play).
Problems engineering face don’t have right answers. Types of problems include design, dilemmas, troubleshooting, planning, and most come down to decision making. Most real problems are ill-structured. Use problem-based learning, real work problems from engineers and case studies. Stories allow case based reasoning and are meaningful, allow for transferability. For assessment consider having students construct story or scenario. Stories, Jonassen stresses are a key component of student learning. The difference between novices and experts are that experts have a story bank to withdraw from and make decisions based upon. This conference, Jonassen tells  us, is all stories. Every presenter is telling a story about how s/he are personally working to improve engineering education. 

Librarians out there, take heed. In reflecting upon this distinguished lecture I concluded that our realm is really all about the “ill-constructed problem.” We help people come up with creative ideas, keywords, phrases, search strategies to solve them. How have people dealt with the problem in the past? What can we learn from them? In helping our users find these stories of the past, new ones are being written. Stories that actually make people think. 
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