A growing set of “professional skills” including problem solving, teamwork, and communications are becoming increasingly important in differentiating U.S. engineering graduates from their international counterparts. A consensus of engineering educators and professionals now believes that mastery of these professional skills is needed for our graduates to excel in a highly competitive global environment. A decade ago ABET realized this and included these skills among the eleven outcomes needed to best prepare professionals for the 21st century engineering world. This has left engineering educators with a challenge: how can students learn to master these skills? We address this challenge by focusing on models and modeling as an integrating approach for learning particular professional skills, including problem solving, within the undergraduate curriculum. To do this, we are extending a proven methodology — model-eliciting activities (MEAs) — creating in essence model integrating activities (MIAs). MEAs originated in the mathematics education community as a research tool. In an MEA teams of students address an open-ended, real-world problem. A typical MEA elicits a mathematical or conceptual system as part of its procedural requirements. To resolve an MEA, students may need to make new connections, combinations, manipulations or predictions. We are extending this construct to a format in which the student team must also integrate prior knowledge and concepts in order to solve the problem at hand. In doing this, we are also forcing students to confront and repair certain misconceptions acquired at earlier stages of their education. A distinctive MEA feature is an emphasis on testing, revising, refining and formally documenting solutions, all skills that future practitioners should master. Student performance on MEAs is typically assessed using a rubric to measure the quality of solution. In addition, a reflection tool completed by students following an MEA exercise assists them in better assessing and critiquing their progress as modelers and problem solvers. As part of the first phase a large, MEA research study funded by the National Science Foundation and involving six institutions, we are investigating the strategies students use to solve unstructured problems by better understanding the extent that our MEA/MIA construct can be used as a learning intervention. To do this, we are developing learning material suitable for upper-level engineering students, requiring them to integrate concepts they’ve learned in foundation courses while teasing out misconceptions. We provide an overview of the project and our results to date.

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