Civil engineering students' and practicing civil engineers' understanding of engineering concepts

by Mark A. Urlacher

Institution: Oregon State University
Department: Civil Engineering
Degree: MS
Year: 2015
Keywords: Engineers; Engineering students
Record ID: 2061232
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1957/55770


The purpose of this thesis is to explore civil engineering students’ and professional civil engineers' understanding of concepts within statics and fluid mechanics. The studies described herein begin to examine theories of situated cognition utilizing concept inventories, which are sets of multiple-choice questions where the incorrect answers are based on common student misconceptions. Situated cognition theory suggests that knowledge is contextual and experiential based on know-how, and less so, on abstract concepts, and that engineers would not necessarily perform better on abstracted conceptual questions than students. Two separate studies were done in order to explore this proposition. In this first study, practicing civil engineers took the statics concept inventory. The participants, on average, answered 13 questions (out of 27 questions) correctly or a score of about 50%. Previous research that was conducted with 1378 students had similar results with the same average score of 50%. In the second study, semi-structured interviews were conducted with professional civil engineers and students using questions from the fluid mechanics concept inventory. For the second study, there were 29 engineers and 22 students that participated. The PE's average score was 73% with a range from 46% to 100% and the student’s was 84% with a range from 46% to 100%. PE's performed the worst on pressure changes in horizontal pipes and for students, it was pressure drops in smooth pipes. The question for which the engineers and students scored the highest on was the concept of velocity change in horizontal pipes. Both studies indicate that practicing engineers perform about the same as students on concept inventories and questions. The second study began to explore the difference between the conceptual knowledge of professional civil engineers and students within fluid mechanics. The results from both studies question the common assumption that student performance on concept inventories is an indicator of their preparedness for upper division engineering courses and for engineering practice and, begins to validate theories of situated cognition that suggest knowledge is related more to experience than abstract ideas and concepts.