Inside MakerSpaces and FabLabs, students often try to solve open-ended engineering design challenges using both new and familiar materials.
Their hands-on solutions can be surprisingly creative and innovative. But where do their ideas come from? And how can this knowledge help teachers?
New research by Northwestern University’s Marcelo Worsley, who holds a joint appointment in the School of Education and Social Policy and the McCormick School of Engineering, chronicled four strategies students used in maker space environments. His work sheds light on the different ways prior knowledge is used to solve design problems.
The four strategies, including a newly identified category called “materials-based reasoning,” give teachers a way to help troubleshoot when students run into problems. Worsley and his team also developed two sets of coding schemes to help other researchers and practitioners interact more effectively with students.
“When teachers know the strategies, they have a tool to engage with the learners,” said Worsley, an assistant professor of learning sciences and of electrical engineering and computer science.
“It’s an entry point,” Worsley said. “If we can think about where the idea came from, we can address the challenges and complications that came up. We can improve how we support students.”
Worsley studied 13 students in ninth grade through doctoral programs to learn how people move from an engineering design problem to a solution. He also repeated the study with a larger sample of 54 students. “We watched what they did, discussed where their ideas came from and how they approached troubleshooting,” he said.
Though students come up with unique solutions, they commonly use four main strategies to problem solve, Worsley said.
- Unexplained reasoning. Students aren’t sure or don’t articulate where the strategy came from.
- Materials-based reasoning. The materials trigger the idea. For example, students were given paper plates, straws and wooden sticks; some thought the straws looked like table legs and that image inspired their solution.
- Example-based reasoning. Students work backwards from prior experiences, building off real world examples, such as a chair in their home. “A student tries to recall the components of his favorite chair as he builds his design,” Worsley said.
- Principle-based reasoning. Students uses engineering principles, such as incorporating triangles or a wide base.
The four strategies aren’t mutually exclusive, Worsley said. Students can go from materials-based to principle-based, but there does appear to be a continuum.
More research is needed to find more nuanced transitions between the reasoning strategies and to figure out the most effective way to move students from one to the next, Worsley said.
He looks forward to more studies on student idea generation because “they have broad significance in supporting innovative practices of both teachers and students as they work in project-based, student-centered, hands-on learning environments,” he wrote.