This Complete Research study involves a case-controlled investigation of Individual Design Experiences (IDEs) to improve students' self-efficacy in team-based engineering design activities.
Team-based projects are widely used in engineering courses, particularly product or process design courses in disciplines such as mechanical, chemical, civil, and biomedical engineering. While the intention of team-based design projects is to provide all students with a diversity of technical and non-technical mastery experiences, students enter into these experiences with differences - whether real or perceived – in relevant technical skills that undermine individuals’ learning objectives on team-based work. Prior research by our group and others indicates that majority (white) male engineering students are more confident than females and traditionally under-represented minorities (URMs) in their math and science abilities, open-ended problem solving, and hands-on prototyping skills. These disparities lead to behavioral differences on team-based projects that in turn reinforce students’ beliefs about their own skill set and others’, often on a gendered or racial basis.
Mastery experiences, which are task-related experiences that culminate in a performance accomplishment, are a well-established mechanism to bolster students’ self-efficacy. Mastery experiences have been studied previously in undergraduate engineering settings, frequently in the context of self-paced mini-modules and micro-certifications; however, the purpose of these studies have been to boost a student’s performance in individual rather than team-based tasks. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the strategic use of specially designed mastery experiences, which we term Individual Design Experiences (IDEs), embedded within team-based engineering design challenges. We posit that the use of IDEs will mitigate disparities in self-efficacy for hands-on prototyping tasks conducted in team settings, which have been shown to disproportionately persist for women and URMs.
A cohort-based, mixed methods study design was used to determine whether IDEs affect student self-efficacy for hands-on prototyping tasks. The setting for the IRB-approved study was the first mechanical engineering design course taken by all mechanical engineering majors at a mid-sized (ca. 150 students/year), ABET-accredited program at a US land grant university. The course was taught by a single professor in multiple sections, with students in half of the sections receiving the IDE (n=81 total) and the other half as control (n=50 total). The IDE consisted of a single, two-week assignment during which students were tasked with designing and building a child’s pull-toy using introductory-level carpentry techniques, e.g., drill, saw, router. The course also had a semester-long (13-week) team-based design project that involved similar design and prototyping techniques. The control group completed both the pull-toy and semester-long projects in their assigned teams, while the IDE treatment group completed the pull-toy individually and the semester-long project in their assigned teams. Self-efficacy was assessed pre and post-course with a validated instrument developed and previously reported by our team that included five factors that encompass most skills necessary for team-based engineering design, namely: (1) Math and Science Skills; (2) Engineering Application; (3) Professional and Interpersonal Skills; (4) Hands-On Prototyping (“Tinkering”); and (5) Open-Ended Problem Solving. Ordinary Least Squares (OLS) regression was used separately for each of the five factors to predict post-treatment scores on treatment assignment, while controlling for students’ pre-treatment scores. Focus group interviews were also conducted post-course, with responses subjected to thematic analysis consistent with the survey instrument.
Students in the IDE treatment group showed greater gains in self-efficacy for Hands-On Prototyping than those in the control group (p=0.01, d=0.37 on 0-4 pt factor scale). Gains were isolated to this one factor, although there was a modest but not statistically significant increase in Math and Science Abilities for IDE vs. Control (d=0.25, p=0.06). Due to loss of subjects to follow-up (pre vs. post-course response drop-off), the study was under-powered to disaggregate self-efficacy gains by gender and race. Results of the focus group interviews suggested that students of all races and genders who had little prototyping experience appreciated the individual mastery experience with carpentry skills, while there was no indication that those with prior experiences were adversely affected.
Our study clearly shows that IDEs can lead to gains in self-efficacy that persist during team-based activity. Given that our IDE intervention was focused almost exclusively on hands-on prototyping, it is not surprising that the effects were more pronounced for this factor. Although our study was ultimately under-powered to definitively determine whether IDE treatment is particularly beneficial for women and URMs, our quantitative and qualitative results strongly suggest that IDEs mitigate disparities in prototyping self-efficacy due to prior experience, which differs for majority vs. under-represented populations in engineering. These results suggest that IDEs may be an effective intervention to address disparities in self-efficacy that otherwise persist throughout or are exacerbated by team-based design experiences.
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