Using Inquiry-Based Activities to Repair Student Misconceptions in Engineering Dynamics

Project No.
PI Name
Brian Self
California Polytechnic State University


Abstract 1

Using Inquiry-Based Activities to Repair Student Misconceptions in Engineering Dynamics

Presentation Type
Brian Self, California Polytechnic State University


Research has shown that students enter classrooms with persistent, strongly-held misconceptions that can be extremely difficult to identify and to repair. It is difficult to change a studentメs conceptual framework by simply telling them that their robust view of the physical world is incorrect when everyday experience has reinforced this framework.
There is a growing body of literature supporting active learning in engineering education, and it appears that this message is being heard. Active engagement methods of instruction may not only result in higher conceptual understanding, but has also been shown to result in equivalent or sometimes better quantitative problem solving skills.
An approach that shows even more promise is that of inquiry-based instruction. This consists of presenting students with a physical situation and asking them to predict what will happen. They can then investigate the situation by experimenting with the laboratory modules. Our project is developing new IBLAs for use in mechanics instruction, and investigates the situations under which learning best occurs during the activities.


Our specific goals are to:

1) Develop and test prototype inquiry-based, hands-on educational materials to teach engineering concepts in dynamics. The targeted concepts have been identified by experts as being both important and difficult to master.
2) Utilize the Dynamics Concept Inventory and other short conceptual questions to assess the effectiveness of these interventions.
3) Analyze the process of student learning through talk-aloud exercises and recordings of students conducting the activities.
4) Disseminate the prototype activities and assessment results to the engineering community.


To develop our IBLAs, we used a cognitive conflict model. We tried to identify key concepts, and then develop scenarios where students would have difficulty predicting the correct outcome. Several similar scenarios are presented during an IBLA, along with some instructor-led discussion, to allow students to further develop their understanding. More recently, we have begun to use variation theory to help inform our choices for different scenarios.
Our team has collected pre and post Dynamics Concept Inventory data, prediction data for both individual and teams, subjective survey data, longitudinal concept question data (for both near and far transfer), and think aloud video recordings from individual students conducting the IBLAs


From our think-alouds, we discovered several na�ve mental models that we did not previously anticipate (eg, one the lighter mass plays a role in an Atwood machine). Direct instruction was modified in subsequent iterations of our Pulley IBLA to account for this. After utilizing variation theory, we also added an additional scenario to help the students vary key parameters simultaneously.
Initial results also show that student predictions do improve over the different scenarios, particularly right after an instructor intervention/explanation. The tradeoffs between direct instruction and student discovery still need to be further investigated.
A cross-over study will be conducted during the winter quarter, which will help us to determine the effectiveness of the IBLAs.
Deliverables will include 4-5 ready-to-use IBLA modules for use in engineering dynamics, and we have recently been developing simulations of our activities. Work has begun on a website to help disseminate our materials, and the simulations will be included on this page. We also hope to collect student learning outcomes on this page.

Broader Impacts

A number of other instructors at our university have adopted the use of our IBLAs, and materials have also been sent to a colleague at University of Nevada, Reno for his use. We estimate that over 3000 students at Cal Poly have participated in an IBLA.
We have given small workshops in Germany, Spain, at two Section ASEE conferences, at a Community College meeting, as well as at the US Air Force Academy, and at FIE. We are building a website to help with dissemination and will continue presenting our work at regional, national and international conferences.

Unexpected Challenges

Primary difficulties were logistical - PIs going on sabbatical, co-PI leaving the university, etc. We extended the project by two years due to these delays. Some difficulties were encountered trying to make sure the activities were inexpensive, easy to transport, and 'student proof'. Several iterations have been made to help solve these difficulties.


Self, B.P. and Widmann, J. (2014) Learning Fundamental Mechanics Relationships Using Inquiry-Based Learning Activities. Frontiers in Education Conference. Madrid, Spain.
Widmann, J., Self, B.P., Prince, M.J. (2014) Development and Assessment of an Inquiry-Based Learning Activity in Dynamics: A Case Study in Identifying Sources and Repairing Student Misconceptions. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition.
Self, B.P., Widmann, J., Prince, M.J. (2013) Effectiveness of two inquiry-based learning activities in dynamics. 2013 Research in Engineering Education Symposium. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Self, B.P., Widmann, J., Prince, M.J., and Georgette, J. (2013) Inquiry-based learning activities in dynamics. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition.
Self, B.P. and Widmann (2014) Developing an Inquiry-Based Learning Activity Using Variation Theory. 2013 Research in Engineering Education Symposium, Dublin, Ireland.
Adams, G., Self, B.P., Widmann, J., Coburn, A., Saoud, B. (2015) How Misconceptions Might be Repaired Through Inquiry-Based Activities. American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition.

We also have about a dozen ASEE Regional conference proceedings.