Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

John K. Bennett

Second Advisor

Jean Hertzberg

Third Advisor

Tim Curran

Fourth Advisor

Noah Finkelstein

Fifth Advisor

Diane Sieber


This research evaluates the usefulness of transformative experience (TE) in engineering education. With TE, students 1) apply ideas from coursework to everyday experiences without prompting (motivated use); 2) see everyday situations through the lens of course content (expanded perception); and 3) value course content in new ways because it enriches everyday affective experience (affective value). In a three-part study, we examine how engineering educators can promote student progress toward TE and reliably measure that progress.

For the first study, we select a mechanical engineering technical elective, Flow Visualization, that had evidence of promoting expanded perception of fluid physics. Through student surveys and interviews, we compare this elective to the required Fluid Mechanics course. We found student interest in fluids fell into four categories: complexity, application, ubiquity, and aesthetics. Fluid Mechanics promotes interest from application, while Flow Visualization promotes interest based in ubiquity and aesthetics. Coding for expanded perception, we found it associated with students’ engineering identity, rather than a specific course. In our second study, we replicate atypical teaching methods from Flow Visualization in a new design course: Aesthetics of Design. Coding of surveys and interviews reveals that open-ended assignments and supportive teams lead to increased ownership of projects, which fuels risk-taking, and produces increased confidence as an engineer.

The third study seeks to establish parallels between expanded perception and measurable perceptual expertise. Our visual expertise experiment uses fluid flow images with both novices and experts (students who had passed fluid mechanics). After training, subjects sort images into laminar and turbulent categories. The results demonstrate that novices learned to sort the flow stimuli in ways similar to subjects in prior perceptual expertise studies. In contrast, the experts’ significantly better results suggest they are accessing conceptual fluids knowledge to perform this new, visual task. The ability to map concepts onto visual information is likely a necessary step toward expanded perception.

Our findings suggest that open-ended aesthetic experiences with engineering content unexpectedly support engineering identity development, and that visual tasks could be developed to measure conceptual understanding, promoting expanded perception. Overall, we find TE a productive theoretical framework for engineering education research.