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NSF GRFP 2013 Previous Research

March 29, 2013

As an engineer, I see social science research as a critical bridge between engineering solutions and successful implementation in society. Engineering solutions for energy efficiency can have slow adoption rates (if adopted at all) and human factors can reduce effectiveness (ex. if consumers buy programmable thermostats but fail to program them). I am well-suited for this type of interdisciplinary research where effective solutions must combine both human and technical elements.

Undergraduate Work: Although I have an engineering degree, my introduction to social science research methods was through my study of engineering education. While at Olin College, I worked with my research advisor, Yevgeniya Zastavker, to study the implementation of new pedagogies in engineering. Drawing from sociological traditions, we used the grounded theory approach and published four papers for which I am the first author. Grounded theory is a rigorous qualitative research methodology based on drawing theories from data. By analyzing interview transcripts for interesting and potentially unexpected trends, I identified over-arching motivating concepts. My self-directed research focused on using grounded theory to understand the divergent mental frameworks used by faculty and students involved in first-year project-based learning (PjBL) engineering programs to inform curricular reform.

To this end, my research group sought to break away from the case study approach common in engineering education and engage in rigorous research with theoretical underpinnings. My second paper, “Mathematics and Physics Faculty Conceptions of Teaching in a First-Year Integrated Project-Based Engineering Curriculum” won third place in the First Year Programs division at the 2009 ASEE Conference. Further, I presented this research at that conference and was awarded Best Student Presentation. This work focused on mapping my observations based on faculty interviews to an existing framework in education research called “conceptions of teaching”. I found that faculty involved in a PjBL curriculum tended to have more student-centered conceptions of teaching than technical faculty teaching in a more traditional curricula. I also found that faculty who are forced to use a pedagogy that mismatches their conceptions of teaching report their teaching experience to be less successful and less fulfilling. The program I studied used team-teaching, which faculty found useful for encouraging reflection on teaching practices despite occasional conflicts from differing conceptions of teaching. This paper was highly relevant to structuring curriculum reform, which can be critical as schools struggle to implement new pedagogies.

As I matured as a researcher, I became increasingly involved in mentoring younger students. For my third paper, “Achievement Goal Theory: A Framework for Implementing Group Work and Open-Ended Problem Solving”, I worked with two junior students in my research group to teach them how to do data analysis. It was very rewarding to see those students begin to get actively involved in our research and develop their own interpretations of the data. This paper focused on bridging the gap between engineering education and educational psychology by using Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) – a framework for understanding motivation to learn – as a tool for designing successful innovative curricula because it accurately depicted the mental frameworks I had observed in interviews.  Using AGT, which identifies two major goal orientations (mastery and performance), I observed that many environmental aspects of an engineering curriculum made it difficult to encourage the desired mastery goal orientation. Elements such as time-pressure, perceived course usefulness and uncertainty related to group work and open-ended problem solving all contributed to students’ reluctance to adopt a mastery goal orientation. Faculty can compensate for these factors by, for example, ensuring students choose projects of an appropriate difficulty and emphasizing the value of failure as a learning experience. This work applied a theoretical framework to identify ways to improve the implementation of PjBL strategies.

After I graduated, I continued collaborating with my research group and published a paper with another student co-author on observations related to self-directed learning. This work explored the underlying reasons for high levels of frustration and discomfort among students in open-ended learning environments. Students tended to feel unsupported and perceived themselves as less competent whereas faculty appeared unaware of their role in providing scaffolding and other structural learning support to improve student experience and performance. This project was particularly instructive from a logistical perspective because I was collaborating remotely with multiple co-authors. I successfully learned how to collaborate remotely and the importance of establishing clear communication and expectations for collaborative work.

Graduate Work: At Carnegie Mellon University, I am working with engineers, economists and social scientists in the Energy and Behavior Group as part of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center. Our goal is to use behavioral science to reduce and shift energy usage. Presently, I am completing a project to identify how to design electricity bills to best help consumers make informed decisions to reduce energy use. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three formats: (a) tables, (b) bar graphs, or (c) icon graphs (discretized bar graphs). Each format was used to show three contexts, within subjects: (1) simple historical use, (2) comparison of single bill to neighbors, and (3) historical use with appliance breakdown.  Participants answered questions measuring their understanding, trust and liking, and motivation for behavior change. My results suggest that the table format is the best for improving understanding across all contexts and participants, especially when showing simple historical use information. In addition, neighbor comparison information was liked least, despite being no harder to understand than the appliance breakdown. This work, still being analyzed and prepared for publication, can be applied to improve utility bills to be understandable to all consumers. This project was my first experience in experimental design, survey design, and statistical analysis. With the guidance and help of my advisors, Baruch Fischhoff, Wändi Bruine de Bruin and Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, I played a primary role in designing, implementing, and analyzing this study.

Beyond my general engineering background, my undergraduate research experience has focused on qualitative grounded theory methods for studying engineering education. In my graduate program, I am developing skills in quantitative survey methods. This broad background in both research methods and disciplines will enhance my ability to develop successful energy efficiency programs that combine new technology and the science behind behavior change. Ultimately, I intend to apply my skills in a career in research and government to have a broad impact on national programs to use energy efficiency to address climate change.

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