Foley, B. (2012) ENGINEERING PROBLEM SOLVING: UNCOVERING A THRESHOLD EXPERIENCE AND TRIGGERING A META-LEARNING RESPONSE. In: National Academy’s Sixth Annual Conference and the Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference. Threshold Concepts: from personal practice to communities of practice, 2012, June 28 - 29 2012, Trinity College Dublin., Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.


Problem solving is core to both the formation and practice of engineering. While students are typically nonplussed by routine textbook problems, when confronted by less straightforward scenarios, such as open-ended problems, multisolution problems, or serious complexity, they can find the experience troublesome, particularly freshman students. Treating engineering problem solving within a threshold experience framework, this paper seeks to investigate both the troublesome and transformative aspects with particular reference to electronic engineering and to investigate the impact of induced metalearning. Many College-based engineering programmes now incorporate some formal training in generic problem solving skills. While the reaction to such modules is typically positive, the longterm impact is limited, mostly because the training is inadequately grounded in the particular discipline. A similar critique can be made in respect of efforts to make students aware of their own learning in a metalearning sense. Meyer (2010) has suggested that better results might be obtained from metalearning initiatives by making them less generic and embedding them more in the target discipline. This, he further suggests, can be given effect within a threshold concepts framework. This paper reports on a study of this type in which the problem solving practices of a group of engineering students were investigated over a period of time. The design of the study is such that not only are the troublesome and empowering dimensions of electronic circuit problem solving under scrutiny, but the participants are required to consciously and critically reflect on the approaches they adopt. The study reveals a definite progression in problem solving skills with an increasing degree of sophistication in the discourse of problem solving being a particular outcome.

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