High school students’ cognitive activity while solving authentic problems through engineering design processes

Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Conference Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education


American Society of Engineering Education

Publication Date



This exploratory multiple case study describes the cognitive activity of two groups of adolescents as they used engineering design processes to address authentic challenges. These challenges were ‘authentic’ in the sense that they aligned with the students’ interests, were illstructured, and met the needs of actual clients. The following data were collected in relation to these students’ design processes: pre- and post-challenge interviews with each of the seven students, transcriptions from video-recordings of their conversations during the challenge, and products made during the design process (e.g., sketches). Constant comparative analyses revealed differences and similarities across the two groups in terms of their problem definition strategies, research strategies, and communication strategies. Neither of the groups outlined criteria and constraints in the problem definition stage; instead, these criteria and constraints were only articulated in the ‘evaluate the solution’ stage as the students evaluated individual ideas for the design. Moreover, the groups generally did not consider competing criteria and constraints in their evaluations. The study concludes with possible instructional implications for high school engineering teachers to consider as they seek to enhance their students’ cognitive activity at each stage of the engineering design process.

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