Date of Award

Spring 7-11-2015

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Michael Brandemuehl

Second Advisor

Angela Bielefeldt

Third Advisor

Margaret Eisenhart

Fourth Advisor

Amy Javernick-Will

Fifth Advisor

David Webb

Abstract

Generating greater student interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has been a major topic of discussion among educators, policymakers, and researchers in recent years, as increasing the number of graduates in these fields is widely considered a necessary step for sustaining the progress of today’s society. Fostering this interest must occur before students reach college, and substantial efforts have been made to engage students at K-12 levels in STEM-focused learning. Attempts to involve students in engineering, a vital and growing profession, yet one in which students often have little experience, have frequently emphasized the design and construction of physical products, a practice supported by project-based learning.

This thesis examines the environment of an engineering high school course that employed the project-based model. The course is part of a dedicated curricular program which aims to provide students with positive experiences in engineering-related activities while also preparing them for the rigors of college. A case study was conducted to provide insight into the benefits and drawbacks of the learning model. The study’s outcomes are intended to provide guidance to educators participating in the design and/or facilitation of project-based activities, particularly those involved with engineering education.

The research was performed using a qualitative approach. Long-term engagement with course participants was deemed critical to gaining a comprehensive understanding of the interactions and events that transpired on a daily basis. Nine educators involved with the program were interviewed, as were nineteen of the course’s thirty-nine students. A wealth of other relevant data – including surveys, field notes, and evaluations of student work – was compiled for analysis as well.

The study findings suggest that experiences in problem solving and teamwork were the central benefits of the course. Limitations existed due to a high focus on hands-on work, which infringed upon the significance of math and science content as well as the utilization of disciplined inquiry. In addition, group

projects failed to hold individuals accountable, leading to assessment challenges. Program-wide, a number of issues hindered the teachers’ abilities to institute changes, most notably a commitment to serve students of all abilities.

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