A grand challenge-based framework for contextual learning in engineering: Impact on student outcomes and motivation
Exposure to meaningful, societally relevant applications can increase student motivation and improve learning outcomes. Here, we describe assessment results that evaluate a pedagogical framework based on the NAE Grand Challenges, in which specific engineering concepts are embedded in a societal problem (e.g., "reverse-engineering the brain") that requires students to define problems and apply course content to those problems. Assessment data were acquired from 981 undergraduate engineering students, including students participating in the intervention in an introductory class (N = 576) and advanced classes (N = 59) and control students in introductory (N = 281) and advanced classes (N = 65). Using a multivariate analysis of variance, we tested the hypothesis that the Engineering Grand Challenge Framework (EGCF) influenced students' self-assessments of specific student outcomes (ABET Criterion 3), particularly those related to understanding engineering in a societal/contemporary context. We also evaluated student motivation using well-validated scales drawn from the psychological literature and a structural equation model linking motivation to course outcomes. The initial multivariate analysis revealed a significant effect of intervention upon student outcome responses considered as a group, and a significant interaction with class level. Significant item-specific interactions were observed for ABET criteria associated with societal context (ABET h), life-long learning (ABET i), and knowledge of contemporary issues (ABET j); in each case, the interaction revealed a greater effect of the EGCF on upper-level students' self-assessments on these criteria. Analysis of student motivation via structural equation modeling revealed a potential role for motivation in shaping course outcomes: for advanced students, the EGCF was associated with significant increases in situational interest (a measure of motivation) that in turn predicted higher ABET scores. We conclude that EGCF - and, by extension, frameworks that connect engineering content to societal issues - holds promise for shaping student engagement with technical content in a manner directly relevant for national goals for engineering education (i.e., ABET criteria). Moreover, educational research can identify the circumstances in which a particular framework may be most effective (e.g., upper-level courses) and thus guide the allocation of instructor priorities and resources.