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Collaborative Research: vObjects - Understanding their Utility to Enhance Learning of Abstract and Complex Engineering Concepts


Institutional Transformation: Cultivating an ethical STEM culture through an integrated undergraduate general education


Research: Examining the impact of mechanical objects in students learning of thermodynamics-related engineering problems

NSF Award #1712210

Title: Collaborative Research: vObjects - Understanding their Utility to Enhance Learning of Abstract and Complex Engineering Concepts.

Abstract: Thermodynamics is a subject that often features engineering problems that are not well-defined and abstract concepts that are often hard for students to understand. In addition, the scale at which thermodynamic phenomena occur makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to interact with authentic physical objects that exhibit such phenomena. To address these challenges, this project will use virtual objects (vObjects) to enhance learning by closely mapping the learner experience to real-life engineering scenarios. This study will be one of the first to systematically evaluate characteristics and features of a virtual learning environment designed to support the "messiness" of real world problem solving.

This project will employ technological advancements for manipulation of vObjects to help students apply foundational knowledge to the solution of ill-defined problems and to address the improvement of virtual learning for future engineering curricula. A comprehensive understanding of the utility of vObjects in engineering will contribute to the development of online learning environments, including augmented reality environments. Virtual learning of engineering skills can also be used as a tool for broadening participation in STEM by providing the opportunity for greater access by diverse students. In broad terms, this research will contribute to improving and transforming undergraduate engineering education by enhancing student learning of theoretical and abstract engineering concepts.

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NSF Award #1737042

Title: Institutional Transformation: Cultivating an ethical STEM culture through an integrated undergraduate general education.

Abstract: This project will study the implementation and effectiveness of a university wide ethical reasoning curriculum. The project will identify and assess the culture of ethics education that emerges from "Pathways to General Education" at Virginia Tech. The project will do a systematic analysis of institutional transformation. It will focus on the culture of STEM ethics by tracing the implementation of ethical reasoning into a new general education curriculum. The research will evaluate the transferability of this approach to other institutions. The project will contribute to broadening students' expertise beyond their field of study and to provide competencies that will transfer to the workplace. Summer institutes, webinars, on-line training modules and workshops will be developed for faculty to promote ethical considerations in teaching and doing STEM. The findings of this project will be of interest to faculty members, students, university administrators and businesses.

The project will include multi-pronged evaluations of the efficacy of a new curriculum program at Virginia Tech. It will understand the dynamics of the individual, collective, and institutional processes evident in their implementation; and test the overall utility of the ABCD theory of change as employed in this transformation effort. There are four categories of anticipated impacts from this project: 1) evaluation for direct improvement in faculty ethics teaching competency, 2) evaluation of students' ethics learning competency, 3) estimation of changes to ethical climate in an R1 STEM focused university, and 4) dissemination of findings and best practices from this project's research to other institutions. The project will collect qualitative and quantitative data through interviews, surveys and participant observation.

NSF Award #1763477

Title: Research: Examining the impact of mechanical objects in students learning of thermodynamics-related engineering problems.

Abstract: As technology quickly advances in modern society, it is important that the engineers of tomorrow fully learn the basic concepts of engineering so that they can apply these concepts throughout their careers to a range of new applications. Many engineering courses in college involve teaching abstract concepts that are often difficult for students to understand. For example, "Thermodynamics" is an important course that involves learning about relationships between heat, energy, and mechanical work. Thermodynamics is known to be a difficult course for many students since some of the concepts in the class, such as heat and energy, are abstract. One method for teaching difficult engineering subjects is to use physical or mechanical objects that a student can touch and manipulate in order to demonstrate important concepts. This project examines new approaches for the use and evaluation of mechanical objects as teaching tools in a thermodynamics course with the idea that results from this work can then be applied to additional engineering courses.

This project examines person-object interactions, a significant and critical aspect of engineering, to examine how these interactions affect comprehension of challenging concepts. The primary question to be addressed in the project is fundamental to engineering education and practice: What is the value of mechanical objects in learning engineering related concepts? This study uses quasi-experiments in a mixed methods design where different mechanical objects are used in several problem-solving activities in Thermodynamics classes. Physically demonstrating key thermodynamics concepts, involved in traditional problems, such as the conversion of heat to work, ideal gas behavior, or liquid-vapor phase change processes can be augmented with the use of mechanical objects. For example, a typical "piston-cylinder" arrangement in an automobile engine can be modeled with a simple mechanical object that consists of a plunger in a syringe with an integrated temperature sensor to physically illustrate relationships between compression, expansion, work, heat, temperature, and pressure. The study results will be analyzed in order to provide a clear picture of how the use of mechanical objects supports engineering activities and how individual differences affect the learning process. At the end of the project, the researchers will develop typologies of object use and mental models describing the cognitive processes involved in solving engineering related problems. Finally, the results from this work will provide guidance as to how mechanical objects can be used as educational tools.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

NSF Award #1916521

Title: Impact of Interactive Holographic Scenes in Learning Applications of Data Sensing and Modeling

Abstract: With support from the NSF Improving Undergraduate STEM Education Program: Education and Human Resources (IUSE: EHR), this project aims to serve the national interest by preparing construction engineering and management students to use modern sensor technologies at construction sites. Over recent years, the construction industry has adopted widespread use of sensing technologies at construction sites, with resulting operational and safety benefits. The use of these sensing technologies has triggered a demand for construction engineering graduates who can enhance industry operations, innovation, and safety through successful deployment of sensor systems. However, it is difficult to prepare a future workforce that is technologically competent in the use of sensing technologies because safety, schedule, and weather-related constraints limit student access to construction sites. This proposal aims to overcome these limitations, in part, by using a mixed reality pedagogical framework combined with holographic telepresence technology. This educational approach is intended to equip construction engineering and management students with competencies in sensor technologies. The project promotes academia-industry partnerships by involving industry practitioners in determining the relevant construction engineering competencies and in developing an appropriate pedagogical approach. The learning activities developed for undergraduate students will also be adapted for use in K-12 programs.

In this project, holographic telepresence is being employed to bring digital participants and remote locations into the engineering classroom in 3D, thereby permitting hard-to-reach construction site personnel and experiences to be imported into the engineering classroom in real time. The goal is to create and assess a pedagogical framework for equipping construction engineering and management students with the competencies required on construction project sites. Specifically, the proposed framework involves projecting interactive holographic scenes of construction sites into the classroom environment, so that students can explore strategies for finding data sensing solutions to industry problems. A mixed method research study will be conducted to answer research questions that address the nature of the expected core competencies of graduating construction engineers and the value of the interactive holographic scenes in training construction engineers. The findings will serve as a guide for developing: (1) an innovative construction engineering and management education curriculum; and (2) a training program tailored towards improving existing construction workforce technical competencies. The plans include investigation of demographic influences on learning and spatial reasoning in the 3D holographic environment, which is likely to yield interesting insights regarding broadening participation in engineering. An important benefit of the project to society lies in the potential to demonstrate that affordable holographic telepresence technology can be harnessed by our educational institutions to provide higher levels of engagement in the STEM teaching and learning process. The NSF IUSE: EHR Program supports research and development projects to improve the effectiveness of STEM education for all students. Through the Engaged Student Learning track, the program supports the creation, exploration, and implementation of promising practices and tools.

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