Infusing Design: Impact of Engineering Design in Physics Labs on Student Engagement and Perception

Jason Morphew, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Purdue University

Problem-solving is a critical skill in the workplace, but recent college graduates are often deficient in problem-solving skills. Introductory STEM courses present engineering students with well-structured problems with single-path solutions that do not prepare students with the problem-solving skills they will need to solve complex problems within authentic engineering contexts. When presented with complex problems in authentic contexts, engineering students find it difficult to transfer the scientific knowledge learned in their STEM courses to solve these integrated and ill-structured problems. By integrating physics laboratories with engineering design problems, students are taught to apply physics principles to design tasks in order to solve ill-structured and complex engineering problems. The integration of engineering design processes to physics labs is meant to help students transfer physics learning to engineering problems, as well as to transfer the design skills learned in their engineering courses to the physics lab. We hypothesize this integration will help students become better problem solvers when they go out to industry after graduation. The purpose of this study is (1) to explore undergraduate students’ perceptions of engineering design challenges in the laboratory component of an introductory physics course for engineers and scientists; and (2) to examine how students transfer their understanding of physics concepts to solve ill-structured engineering problems by means of an engineering design project in a physics laboratory. We use mixed-methods methodology to examine these two research questions. To explore the first question, we used surveys to explore student perceptions of the design activities with respect to their interest, learning, and engagement. To examine the second question, we used case-study methodology to examine two teams of students. We analyzed the cases using a lens of co-regulated learning and transfer between physics and engineering contexts. That is, we observed the teams during the physics labs over the course of 6 weeks as they completed a design challenge. We examined their discourse and lab reports for evidence of transfer paying particular attention to the context which was associated with these moments.Preliminary quantitative results indicate that most students made connections to their other classes and their majors, reported high levels of interest and learning, and reported using metacognitive monitoring and control strategies during the design project. However, student perceptions of workload, coding background, and epistemological stances limited interest in the design projects. Preliminary qualitative results indicate that the design challenge situated the physics concepts within an authentic context, giving students a purpose for learning the physics, and a context for applying the concepts to solving an engineering problem. We note a progression in the depth of integration of physics concepts and engineering design across the six labs. Moments of transfer particularly occurred when students were asked to explicitly consider how the physics concepts explored in the inquiry labs were related to, or impacted their design, was critical for facilitating integration and transfer.


N. Sanjay Rebello, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN; Carina Rebello, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN; Amir Bralin, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN