Iterations

Solutions and re-solutions for education

Posts Tagged ‘Mental model’

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 »