January 06, 2010

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By Kathryn Kopchik

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Research by three Bucknell University professors exploring ways to approach and correct the misconceptions of undergraduate engineering students has been recognized by the Institution of Chemical Engineers with the Hutchison Medal.

The research article, "A preliminary study on the effectiveness of inquiry-based activities for addressing misconceptions of undergraduate engineering students," was published in Education for Chemical Engineers in July 2009.

The Hutchison Medal will be presented in May at the annual general meeting of the Institution of Chemical Engineers in London.

Collaborative effort
Professor of chemical engineering Michael Prince worked with Margot Vigeant, associate professor of chemical engineering, and Katharyn Nottis, associate professor of education, on the article and the research, which was funded by a four-year, $364,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 2007.

The collaborative research NSF grant funds the second phase of a pilot program to develop inquiry-based activities to repair common student misconceptions in the thermal sciences. Specifically, the program seeks to fill misperception gaps in eight areas of heat transfer and thermodynamics through the development of educational materials that will be used with chemical engineering students at Bucknell and partner schools to verify outcomes with a diverse pool of students.

Research shows the importance of drawing out students' initial preconceptions as a prerequisite for promoting conceptual change.

Repairing misconceptions
"For any significant topic in class, students already have a preconception, a conceptual picture in their heads," Prince said. "It frequently is wrong, but they have one. All of us are working on ways to both uncover and basically repair important student misconceptions in the fields of engineering that we teach."

The targeted misconceptions, judged essential in understanding the underlying science, were identified by a panel of 30 experts from a variety of institutions. The resulting educational materials will be disseminated through an on-site faculty workshop, an instruction manual with inquiry-based activities, and supplementary instructional aids.

Another aspect of the grant research is to refine and test learning modules with diverse chemical engineering students at the partner schools where there will an emphasis on outreach to under-represented student populations.

"The goal is to both attract and retain a more diverse pool of engineering students," said Prince.

"Mike, Margot, and Katharyn's receipt of the Hutchison Medal, as well as their initial NSF grant, are great examples of the recognition our faculty are receiving for the outstanding, and internationally acclaimed, pedagogical research being done here at Bucknell," said Keith Buffinton, interim dean of engineering at Bucknell.

Contact: Division of Communications


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