A grand challenge-based framework for contextual learning in engineering

Journal Article

A key finding within the current engineering education literature is that exposure to real-world applications - especially when presented in an active, experiential learning environment - increases both student interest and pedagogical effectiveness. This idea of contextual learning, learning designed so that students can carry out activities and solve problems in ways that reflect the real-world nature of such tasks, is based on cognitive learning theory and current research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Such research suggests that initial learning, transfer of that learning to other contexts, and retention of learned material is facilitated when concepts are presented in a familiar or relatable context. That is, students are motivated when learning has meaning. The National Academy of Engineering recently outlined fourteen Grand Challenges for Engineering (e.g., "Reverse Engineering the Brain") that collectively constitute some of the largest and most pressing real-world issues facing engineering research and practice. We have developed an instructional framework for engineering education that utilizes these Grand Challenges as the context for teaching a wide range of concepts. The framework comprises six stages, each building upon its predecessor. Students first progress from thinking about the grand, overarching theme from a multitude of perspectives to focusing on a discipline-specific view of the challenge (Stages 1-3). Then, they concentrate on learning the specific course content and applying what they have learned to a specific, real-world problem inspired by the overarching Grand Challenge (Stages 4-5). Finally, they analyze what they have learned from the hands-on activities and reflect back on how this can inform their understanding of, and solutions to, the Grand Challenge (Stage 6). This paper begins with a description of the framework including its foundation in contextual learning theory and the motivation for using the Grand Challenges. Subsequently, the implementation of the framework in two engineering courses is described. Details of the learning modules and activities corresponding to the six stages of the framework are presented for each course. Similarities and differences in implementation are highlighted, illustrating how a common framework can be applied to seemingly very different courses. Finally, the use of the framework is evaluated in terms of its impact on student motivation and learning using psychologically rigorous measures. © American Society for Engineering Education, 2013.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Huettel, LG; II, MRG; Nadeau, JC; Schaad, D; Barger, MM; Linnenbrink-Garcia, L

Published Date

  • 2013

Published In

  • ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings