Intro: This research paper describes the study of an instructor’s perceptions about teaching interpersonal skills in an analytical engineering course and how students from this course actually experienced the interpersonal skills curriculum. In the field of engineering, model-based reasoning and the employment of engineering judgment are two of the most important practices that are critical for the success of practicing engineers (Gainsburg, 2013). Additionally, through industry and public institutions we know that engineers do not work in isolation, but in teams. Through this course we wanted students to recognize they learn the most when they work together to solve problems, by building on one another’s ideas constructively (Chi & Wylie, 2014). Therefore, we created the Problem Solving Studio (PSS). The PSS is a novel cognitive apprenticeship environment that is composed of a set of participant structures (Philips, 2001) that ensures that students must work together, in teams of two, to solve problems that will foster the development of their model-based reasoning and estimation skills (estimation is a form of engineering judgment)(Le Doux, Waller, & Philips, 2016). However, we discovered that the full potential of this interactive learning environment requires students to skillfully negotiate with one another: their roles, ideas, and problem-solving approaches. Therefore, we decided to explicitly attend to and teach interpersonal skills in the PSS leading us to investigate whether students’ understanding and value of interpersonal skills aligns with those of the instructor.
Research questions: Do students value learning interpersonal skills in an analytical engineering course? How do students transfer learning interpersonal skills learned within an analytical engineering course?
Methodology: A mixed method approach was used to collect and analyze data. Data sources for this study are from Spring 2017 and are the following: course syllabus/schedule, end of semester course evaluations, and end of course open-ended questions. We will triangulate between the three data sources to investigate the extent to which students value, or do not value, interpersonal skills as being important to learn in a technical course and to the practice of engineering.
The end of course survey asked students “to what extent do you agree that each of the following topics improved your ability to effectively interact with your partner(s) in the problem-solving studio?” Eleven topics on interpersonal skills were given including i.e. constructive feedback, selective attention, effective listening. Each topic was given with a 6 point Likert scale ranging from 0 – I don’t recall this topic, 1 – disagree strongly, to 6 – agree strongly. Student mean scores range from 0 – 6.
Following the end of course survey students were also asked to fill out three open ended questions: 1) describe an experience using interpersonal skills, what was valuable from the course, and what could improve the course. Questions were transcribed and analyzed using thematic analysis.
Findings: In the course syllabus we find that interpersonal skills are discussed only once. They are not italicized or given its own section as with the other skill sets: basic engineering calculations or analysis of physiological systems. However, team building and team problem solving are expressed throughout the syllabus; both are areas where interpersonal skills are implicitly discussed. Moreover, the course schedule does not explicitly show when these interpersonal skills will be intertwined with other course topics such as estimation or energy balances.
End of course evaluations: 147 end-of-course evaluations were collected. Topic descriptives: kolb learning (M = 2.248, SD = 2.10), selective attention (M = 2.80, SD = 2.016), ICAP framework (Chi & Wylie, 2014) (M = 4.22, SD = 1.597), models of communication (M = 3.5, SD = 1.966), cognitive bias (M = 4.441, SD = 1.594), false consensus bias (M = 4.359, SD = 1.508), attribution bias (M = 4.175, SD = 1.562), effective listening (M = 4.296, SD = 1.610), three types of talk (M = 3.385, SD = 1.665), Johari Window (M = 2.945, SD = 1.763) , and constructive feedback (M = 4.338, SD = 1.741). Out of the 11 topics 8 received mean scores 3.5 or higher demonstrating that the majority of the topics were positively values in this learning experience.
Open ended questions: Themes were constructed for all three questions. Frequencies were taken of each theme. A table will be included in the final paper. Overall, many of the students appreciated learning about interpersonal skills but many did not explicitly connect these skills as being valuable to them in developing into a valued and effective practicing engineer.
Discussion: These findings show that many students report it is valuable to learn about and practice interpersonal skills in an analytical engineering course but some did not. Our findings raise a number of questions: why do some students see the value in learning these skills and others do not? Why are some students able to transfer these skills to other settings? Do students see interpersonal skills as something that can be developed? And lastly are students aware that these skills are critical in becoming an effective engineer?
Broader impact: Interpersonal skills are critical to the success of professional engineers. This is because they are often tasked with working on complex problems that require input from an interdisciplinary team of engineers and other professionals. A range of interpersonal skills are needed for these kinds of diverse teams to reach their full potential. This report shares the some preliminary results of a novel intervention that infused within a technical course additional learning experiences designed to help engineering students develop these important, but often overlooked, skillsets.
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