Engaging STEM Learners with Hands-on Models to Build Representational Competence

Eric Davishahl
Associate Professor, Engineering Program Coordinator
Whatcom Community College

Need: Modern 3D printing technology offers an adaptable and affordable process for design, production and dissemination of physical models and manipulatives for the STEM classroom. We hypothesize that incorporating hands-on learning with these concrete embodiments of otherwise abstract concepts into traditionally lecture-dominant courses may help learners improve outcomes and develop representational competence, the ability to interpret, switch between, and appropriately use multiple representations of a concept as appropriate for learning, communication and analysis. This approach also offers potential to mitigate difficulties that learners with lower spatial abilities may encounter in foundational STEM courses. Spatial thinking connects to representational competence in that internal mental representations (i.e. visualizations) facilitate work using multiple external representations. Guiding Questions: This project began in fall 2018 and features cross-disciplinary collaboration between engineering, math, psychology, and math education faculty to develop activities with 3D-printed models, build the theoretical basis for how they support learning, and assess their effectiveness in the classroom. We are exploring how such models can support learners’ development of conceptual understanding and representational competence specifically in integral calculus and engineering statics. The project is addressing these questions through parallel work piloting model-based learning activities in the classroom and by investigating specific attributes of the activities in lab studies and focus groups. Outcomes: Class observations and complementary lab studies informed development of a mature suite of activities covering a variety of topics for both calculus and statics. We implemented the curriculum in multiple face-to-face courses in fall 2019 and winter 2020 before hastily adapting the activities for continued implementation in remote learning modalities starting fall 2020. Continued work with think aloud interview sessions is beginning to identify effective design elements for broader application. In addition to our adoption of widely-used instruments to assess spatial abilities, we are developing strategies for assessing representational competence in both subject areas. Toward that end, we published a validated assessment for vector concepts relevant to engineering statics and a series of multiple choice plus explain concept questions for calculus. This poster will present example model activities along with sample assessments, student feedback data and results to date. We will also share some implementation challenges and lessons-learned in adapting this project to online learning.Broader Impacts: The project has the potential to foster skills transfer – specifically representational competence – across disciplinary boundaries to improve STEM-wide learning and achievement. Research demonstrates that all students, particularly those underrepresented in STEM courses, benefit greatly from active and engaged learning experiences, such as working with 3D-printed models, but those experiences are often not present in undergraduate STEM courses and programs. The project seeks to develop broadly-applicable recommendations for design and implementation of hands-on models in STEM disciplines beyond our focus on calculus and statics. The use of readily-available 3D printing can lower barriers to adoption of hands-on active learning in traditionally lecture-dominant courses that are common attrition points in science and engineering pathways.


Lee Singleton, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA; Kathryn Rupe, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA; Todd Haskell, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA