Call the Plumber: Improvable Models as Priming Artifacts in Student Engineering Design Activities
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Within the last decade, there has been an increased emphasis on making engineering education accessible to K-12 students and focus more on making students engineering enabled. Research in this area is in its early stages and further work is needed to advance our understanding of what it means to productively engage with the engineering design process and how we can support students in achieving that. In this research, I explored the use of Improvable Models—models that can be iteratively redesigned and optimized by students—as priming artifacts for supporting productive engagement with the engineering design process. I used two types of Improvable Models – Suboptimal System model and Optimal Component model. Suboptimal System model presents a complete solution but is suboptimal at the system level. Optimal Component model presents an incomplete solution but is optimal at the component level. The following questions guided this research study - (a) How do students use Improvable Models? How does the use of Improvable Models as priming artifacts influence students’ design of engineering solutions? (b) What type of scaffolds and instructions support students’ appropriation of the Improvable Models? Findings indicate that students used the Improvable Models for engaging with five disciplinary practices – (a) attending to either the input or the outcome parameters, (b) making explicit or implicit connection between an input and a single outcome parameter, (c) reasoning with multiple interconnected input and outcome parameters and making tradeoff decisions, (d) weighing outcome parameters and making tradeoffs, and (e) forming design heuristics informed by implicit or explicit rationale. The visual representation of counterexample scaffolded the formation of design heuristics. Improvable Models helped decompose a complex problem into parts and make the problem accessible. Teams using the Optimal Component seed model displayed three types of design fixation – (a) delayed fixation, (b) immediate fixation, and (c) implicit fixation. Three kinds of verbal and written prompts—procedural, reflection, and disciplinary prompts—along with resources like a software simulator scaffolded engagement with the disciplinary practices by problematizing the quality of a system, problematizing design decisions, giving students authority, maintaining accountability, and providing resources.