Iterations

Solutions and re-solutions for education

Posts Tagged ‘Design’

My Research Findings Are In…

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on February 14, 2012

I’m back to writing my blog now that I’ve finished my doctoral dissertation and degree. For my dissertation research, I studied the mental models elementary teachers have of what engineers do and their ideas about how they might incorporate the engineering process into their teaching practice. The Next Generation Science Standards are due to be released soon, and they will require that engineering practices be incorporated into the curriculum from elementary through high school grades, so my research is quite timely. What I found out should be important to teachers, parents, and school administrators as they work out how they will teach engineering to students.

Here’s what I did. I interviewed six elementary school teachers who teach engineering units that deal with science concepts as part of using LEGOs to solve design challenges. I also interviewed six elementary school teachers who teach science with textbooks and/or kits that include some kind of design challenge as a culminating activity. During each individual interview, I asked each teacher about how she teaches science and/or engineering, and showed her a video of designers at work. In this 22-minute video, designers at an innovation firm called IDEO redesigned a shopping cart. The IDEO designers’ process is quite engaging, and you can watch the video in three parts: part 1, part 2 and part 3. After each teacher watched the video, I asked her how she might translate what she saw to her classroom. I analyzed each teacher’s transcribed interview using a research method that allowed me to turn her statements into a mental model of how she perceived the designers in the video thinking and acting, both individually and in collaboration with their fellow designers. I also constructed my own mental model before I interviewed any of the teachers by having someone interview me in the same way I interviewed them. I used the same research method to construct a composite mental model for the IDEO designers. Then I compared all the mental models to each other to discover how each of us – and the composite IDEO designer – made sense of the process of redesigning a shopping cart.

What I found changed my focus significantly. I thought I would find that teachers who teach engineering units would talk about the cognitive steps in the engineering process with more depth and understanding than those who didn’t teach engineering. I thought that my own engineer/educator’s mental model and the composite IDEO designers’ mental model would provide clues about how to better teach the cognitive steps of the engineering process to teachers so that they could better teach it to their students. But that’s not what the interview data told me. Instead, all twelve teachers recognized the cognitive steps of the engineering process equally well, but every one of them fixated on the social and emotional norms and practices that the IDEO designers used (e.g. encourage wild ideas, defer judgment, build on the ideas of others, stay focused, everyone contributes, give feedback respectfully). That’s what each teacher wanted to talk about when she thought about how she would translate the design challenge into her classroom. That’s what she wanted to know how to teach her students. Each teacher believes that the cognitive steps can only be learned by everyone if the social and emotional classroom environment allows students to feel comfortable participating in the engineering process and working with their peers. (Go ahead, watch the video at the links above and you’ll see what teachers valued.)

When I compared teachers’ mental models to those of the professional designers and my own, I found that the professional designers/engineers focus on the cognitive steps of the engineering process and manage the social and emotional aspects of collaboration as part of those tasks. In other words, we know implicitly that we must work together well if we are to solve the design problem. We realize we can’t do it alone and adapt our behavior to work with others.

So here’s the bottom line: in order for students to be able to work together interdependently, teachers must teach those skills explicitly and intentionally. Though I only interviewed twelve teachers, both groups of six teachers were unanimous in their fixation on the collaboration skills they saw in the video. I think I’m on to something here that could be borne out with further research. I’ll be exploring the consequences of these findings in future posts.

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Posted in K-12 Engineering Education, Social and Emotional Literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Engineering a Happy Life

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on February 12, 2011

How can engineering an airplane set the stage for a happy marriage and family life? Engineers get lots of practice balancing both separateness and togetherness in their work. Let’s explore how this skill can help meet our core needs for autonomy and a sense of belonging in work, life, and love.

All of us strive throughout our lives for a sense of autonomy and to feel like we belong. As toddlers able to move around without help, we rushed away from mother to explore our world. As parents and other caregivers encouraged us to explore the world and to satisfy our own needs when we were able, we developed a sense of being able to manage on our own – autonomy.  We reveled in our ability to take on our big, new world until our developing brains allowed us to realize that we are small and we need others to help us. Around two years old, our brains finally allowed us to know one of the major conflicts of life: we like doing things on our own AND we need others to help us. So what did we do? We practiced coming to terms with these opposing needs as best we could. Our parents called this stage our “terrible twos,” when nothing they did seemed to satisfy us. We wanted to be picked up (belong to mother) only to want down again (be autonomous). We wanted help, and we didn’t want help in all sorts of ways that challenged the adults around us.

All of us began to figure out how to belong AND be autonomous as children, and we continue to do it throughout our lives. Can I do this on my own? Who will help me if I need it? We solve and re-solve this puzzle in everyday circumstances and at turning points in our lives. In particular, each time we face a choice that stretches our abilities or changes our relationships, we relive this dilemma. If we’ve solved this conflict for ourselves successfully enough times before, we will know ourselves well enough to be able to weigh our options and choose with confidence.

Life gives each of us many chances to meet our unique needs for belonging and autonomy. A career in engineering gives one many chances to meet these needs with others in a fun, fascinating, and structured way. Engineers work in groups with others who have different expertise within the engineering profession. They all are focused on the object they are designing. Most engineering groups develop a collective identity tied to that object – the Project XYZ group – and each member feels a sense of belonging within it. Each member makes a unique contribution and is autonomous in that regard.  The group develops many different models of its design together. The first common model is created and agreed upon through discussion and some rough sketches. Then, the structural designers translate the initial discussions and sketches into three dimensional computer models. Each member of the team takes that model and makes a different computer model that analyzes and optimizes the design for performance features within the member’s expertise – for example, strength, thermodynamics, or aerodynamics. Along the way, each person exchanges information with every other person on the team. The group comes together again and uses the new information each team member brings to negotiate a better design. Notice in the picture below that each member talks with each other member, then adds to the designed object.


They separate again to analyze the new design. This cycle of designing together, then separately, then together happens until the design does what it’s supposed to do and everyone on the team approves it. Then the group might disband and each person moves on to another project and group. So the design process incorporates autonomy and belonging. All team members must manage both of these for themselves in order to be successful in creating the designed object. And each engineer might work on many projects in her career, so she gets plenty of practice dealing with autonomy and belonging with different groups.

I met my husband when we were both engineers designing an airplane. As two members of a group of engineers designing this plane, we were both fascinated by all the complex challenges involved in designing it. We were focused first on the designed object, the airplane. At the time, I was a co-op student still in engineering school, so this was my first professional experience on a project. He was assigned to be my mentor. We spent months at work together discussing and developing models and blueprints with others in our group. Not only did our group work together to solve design problems, but we socialized together, too. Our group formed a softball team and played in the company league. Our group went out for dinner after work. My future husband and I built trust and respect as we worked on that airplane together. Once I went back to engineering school and we didn’t see each other at work anymore, we began seeing each other socially. Our social relationship was easy because we already knew we collaborated well together, had temperaments that balanced each other, and held similar values. Friendship and trust grew into love, and we were married less than two years later. That was 30 years ago.

Our experiences as engineers helped us build our happy, peaceful family. We learned early in our relationship how to encourage and honor our separate, autonomous selves within the warm and loving togetherness of marriage. We brought two sons into our family and helped them find their autonomy and sense of belonging both within and outside of our family. As they leave our home and make their own families, we are redefining autonomy and belonging for our growing family. All of us continue to collaborate in redesigning our lives to meet our basic human needs for autonomy and belonging. After all, it’s what we engineers (and these engineers’ children) are trained to do.

Posted in K-12 Engineering Education, Social and Emotional Literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Solving Lives: Managing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on January 23, 2011

How do you deal with uncertainty and ambiguity in your life? We can’t avoid them. They’re part of being human. If we’re fortunate, we’ve had enough positive experiences with important others early in life that we perceive the world as a safe and welcoming place. We hold representations of people we love and have loved inside us – our family members, friends, teachers and others. We draw on our attachments to these people – our internal representations of them – for support and comfort when we try something new or take a risk. In this way, our attachments to important others help us flow with the uncertainty and ambiguity of everyday life.

When engineers are presented with a problem, they rarely have complete clarity about the problem or all of the information necessary to solve it. Smart engineering teams spend considerable time at the beginning of a project gathering as much information as possible in order to define the problem and create a shared representation of it inside each team member and for others to see in the form of words, pictures and/or mathematical equations and graphs. Team members draw on each other’s skills and ideas as each of them reduces for herself and for the group the ambiguity about what is needed. Once the group has tackled ambiguity and defined the problem, team members brainstorm possible solutions. Then each one of them uses systematic methods to reduce uncertainty about each possible solution enough so that the team members can agree on a best solution to try.

Engineers can never eliminate uncertainty in a solution, but they can systematically reduce it to tolerable levels. My insightful friend with several engineers in her life notices that we use this approach to solve and re-solve our lives as we live them. These can be adaptive skills for work and life.

I have worked in enough high needs schools to know that many students come to preschool and elementary school without secure attachments to important others who provide the child with an internal sense of stability. For these children, managing the uncertainty and ambiguity that goes along with school-based learning can be overwhelming, and that overwhelmed feeling can inhibit their performance in school. Teachers and administrators who are sensitive both to children’s emotional needs and cognitive needs can provide all students practice dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty by adopting engineering team challenges as part of the school’s curriculum. Interesting and meaningful challenges invite all students to engage in a variety of roles, and the systematic nature of the engineering process enables the teacher to contain the uncertainty and ambiguity of the tasks to levels tolerable for students. In this way, cognitive and emotional learning can happen together.

Next…
Fear and curiosity…like oil and water in the brain

Coming up…
The difference between school science and school engineering
Engineering in the strength-based classroom

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Engineering, Emotion and Education

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on January 21, 2011

Hello and welcome to my blog. I’m at the beginning of another iteration of my work life, and I’d like to share this exciting time with you. Here’s a synopsis of where I’ve been so far: ten years as an aerospace engineer, four years as a provider of informal science education to preschool and early elementary school children, ten years as a teacher and K-12 science coordinator for private and public schools, then five years as a university-based provider of science outreach services and support to K-12 schools.

I’ve left my world of work to write my Ph.D. dissertation. My dissertation topic – the jargon-lite version – is “the mental models elementary school teachers have of what engineers do.” I chose this topic because of a combination of a happy reconnection with someone from my engineering past (you’ll have to return to read that story) and my own experiences over the years talking with elementary school teachers about what I used to do as an engineer. In addition to my own curiosity about the topic, I have a pragmatic motivation. It’s likely that our new national science education standards will contain design/engineering standards that elementary teachers will have to teach. We owe it to teachers to help them teach engineering with curriculum and professional development designed to bridge the gap between the teaching and engineering professions. I’m passionate about this. As any competent engineer will tell you, how you frame a problem determines the nature of the solution. In order to bridge the gap between the two professions, we must first understand it. My dissertation work will help us understand that gap.

I’m equally passionate about combining social and emotional learning opportunities with K-12 engineering education. Engineers have been networking their knowledge and learning in the service of design and innovation long before the internet and Web 2.0 applications existed. It’s what we’ve been trained to do and is an integral part of engineering practice. Granted, knowledge sharing among engineers is decidedly more technical than social, but engineering knowledge is socially constructed nonetheless. Engineering education offers a natural context for social and emotional learning in the K-12 classroom. What do I mean by social and emotional learning? That takes me right back to the preschool/early childhood iteration of my career.

Every one of us, young or old, wants to feel valued, like we belong to a community, and like we have some power over our circumstances. These are basic emotional needs. When engineers are creating a new object or redesigning an existing one, they form teams of people who contribute differently to the engineering process. Each member of the design team is valued for her unique perspective and contribution to the team’s process. They form a shared identity around the object they are designing (i.e. the widget group). Their collaborative efforts bring something entirely new into existence, which can evoke powerful feelings of agency.

Next…

Solving Lives: Managing Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Coming soon…
The difference between school science and school engineering
Engineering in the strength-based classroom

Posted in K-12 Engineering Education, Social and Emotional Literacy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »