Conceptual Knowledge in Engineering

Most fundamentally, concepts function as organizers. They
carve up the world we already see and posit the unseen or even
the unseeable. They sort things into plants and animals, living
and dead, art nouveau and art deco, democratic and autocratic
governments, the deductive and the inductive, velocity and
mass and momentum (David Perkins, 2006, p. 41).

I recently read “Learning Conceptual Knowledge in the Engineering Sciences: Overview and Future Research Directions” by Streveler et al. The article studies research by cognitive psychologists and applied research by science educators to give a foundation of the fundamental issues in teaching conceptual engineering knowledge and methods for assessing such knowledge.

Foundational Studies:

  • What is a concept? A category characterized by attributes, like the concept of a book or a dog
  • Is a students’ conceptual knowledge fragmented, or is it theory-like and applied evenly and consistently? Competing models argue for both cases of how naive conceptual knowledge is organized. Each model has different implications for teachers and ways to convey ideas to students.
  • Why are errors in conceptual knowledge difficult to correct? Work by Einer et al. explores why students have “robust misconceptions” in four major engineering concepts: force, heat, electric current, and light. Students usually have a substance-based model – for example, they view electric current as a fluid that flows through wires like pipes. The research postulates that students attempt to make sense of new concepts by comparing it to existing concepts they understand (constructivist approach). Chi argues that “emergent” concepts are more likely to have misconceptions than “direct” concepts. Emergent concepts are observed phenomena that are not directly caused by underlying physical processes, but instead emerge from them. Chi argues that students misattribute emergent concepts/processes to direct causation.

Examples of Difficult Concepts in Engineering

  • Mechanics: Students often wrongly believe that immovable, apparently rigid obstacles (like a wall) does not exert force, but just “gets in the way.” Force then appears to students to require visible capability of action.
  • Thermal Science: Major misconceptions are (1) heat and temperature are equivalent, (2) temperature determines how cold or warm a body feels, (3) heat is a substance transferred between bodies, (4) addition of energy as heat always increases the temperature in a body, (5) temperature should change in a phase transition (like boiling) since energy is being added or removed.
  • Direct Current Circuits: Common student misconceptions are (1) battery is a source of a constant current and (2) current is consumed.

What can we take away from these studies and knowing what common student misconceptions are? We need to identify “what makes this subject/topic hard?” Which concepts are more difficult for students to learn, and how can we tailor curriculum and assessments to encourage students to develop conceptual knowledge in the correct direction.

Chi notes that conceptual knowledge is especially difficult to learn in two cases:

  1. concepts are not directly observable
  2. a macroscopic conceptual pattern emerges from unobservable microscopic phenomena

So, what does the article suggest educators do to account for all of this knowledge? Be aware that students are coming into a course with previously developed (and still under development) conceptual knowledge, which may be fractured and inconsistent. Instructors should be sensitive to the fact that concepts are not readily observable and therefore present extra challenges for students.

Future Research:

  • Very little research exists on conceptual knowledge at the post-secondary level of engineering science
  • What makes some concepts so difficult to learn and some misconceptions so difficult to repair?
  • What is the interaction between enhanced conceptual knowledge and related procedural knowledge? Will conceptual knowledge allow engineers to make better decisions about how systems will perform?
  • How does conceptual knowledge evolve as a student moves from novice to expert status? Is there a common trajectory or pathway? Are there key events in the process?
  • How do affective and cognitive factors play into a student’s acquisition of conceptual knowledge? What role does motivation play in conceptual change?
  • How does social constructivism account for acquiring conceptual knowledge? Are men and women approaching concepts differently? What about people of different socioeconomic backgrounds or other cultural differences?
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