Creating Informed Problem Solvers: A Case Study in Engineering Education

By Michael Fosmire1, Ruth E Wertz1

1. Purdue University

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Transforming Education from Innovation to Implementation Conference: Session F1

In our increasingly knowledge-based society, the focus of engineering education has changed dramatically, de-emphasizing specialized content skills and rote problem solving and concentrating on processes and habits of mind, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and adaptability. Indeed, the discipline now embraces the concept of Renaissance Engineers, who can contribute their expertise as a part of a team to solve the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary problems facing our society, both locally and globally. This refocusing of perspective has led in the past decade to more open-ended, design-based coursework for undergraduate students, even as early as a student's first year, as, for engineers, the design process is the common method that ties the profession together. In order for students to be prepared to solve the ill-structured problems they will face after graduation, there needs to be a cultural shift in how information gathering is integrated into engineering curricula. Most process models of engineering design do explicitly contain an information gathering component, yet despite that, information skills are typically cursorily discussed in most engineering courses, if at all. Engineering faculty often believe students already possess information skills, although they are continually disappointed by their students' performance on open-ended assignments. To shed light on these perceptions, the authors will report results of a self-assessment of student information skills as well as independent measures of their competencies, which indicate that first-year engineering students have an inflated perception of their own skills. Building on the results of the student assessments, this paper presents an integrated model of engineering design that incorporates both relevant information literacy theories and engineering education research, and discusses the first application of the model to an authentic memo assignment. As a collaboratively developed model, it introduces a common vocabulary that both disciplines can comfortably use, helping bridge the gap between librarians and engineering faculty. The informed problem solving model has transformed the structure of design activities for the first-year engineering program at Purdue, and current research focuses on validating the model and assessment tools at a variety of institutions across the country.