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posted on 01.03.2021, 23:26 by Ying Ying Seah

The ability to make informed decisions is a skill considered as one of the 21st century skills and is crucial as part of the critical thinking and problem-solving process in science and engineering. Despite its importance, students (e.g., beginning designers) often struggle with making informed design decisions that are well supported by relevant scientific principles. It is not uncommon to see disconnection between students’ design decisions and their scientific knowledge. This type of disconnection is also described as the “design-science gap”. Different approaches such as scaffolding have been done in trying to bridge this gap, however there is still limited scaffold that could seamlessly help students connect their scientific knowledge to their design experiences, and consequently help them make scientifically informed design decisions.

In this dissertation, we proposed argumentation as a scaffolding framework and investigated if the use of argumentation as a meaning-making scaffolding approach during scientific experimentation, facilitated students’ generation of informed design decisions while completing a CAD-based design challenge. Specifically, we looked at the impact of the argumentation scaffold on the quality of decision-making arguments made by students, the types of claims made by students and the types of evidence and reasoning they used to back up their claims, as well as their level of performance in a final design challenge.

This study took place in a Physics for Elementary Education course in a Midwestern University in Indiana, USA. This study was part of a four-week unit that focused on the topic of heat transfer, as well as the practices of science and engineering design. The participants of this study included 54 groups of pre-service teachers (i.e., 2 to 4 students in each group) with a background in Elementary Education, from three academic semesters: Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Fall 2019. In this study, these pre-service teachers were divided into two conditions – with and without argumentation scaffold. The data analysis involved looking at the quality of students’ decision-making arguments, the types of claim, evidence, and reasoning they used, as well as their final design performances.

The results of this study indicate that students in the argumentation condition were able to transfer their argumentation skills from science experimentation to design decision-making by demonstrating better ability to justify their decisions using relevant scientific evidence and reasoning, as compared to students without argumentation scaffold. Specifically, students engaged in the argumentation scaffold generated decision-making arguments of higher quality, devoted more attention to scientific principles when they made their decision claims, used more variety of combinations of evidence and reasoning to support their claims, utilized more scientific principles to back up their claims, as well as achieved slightly better performance in their final design in terms of fulfilling the size and energy consumption requirements. Implications from this dissertation include pedagogical scaffold and assessment materials that can be easily adapted by other educators, along with suggestions based on what we learned. In addition, findings and lessons learned from this study open door to more research opportunities such as expanding and adapting the scientific argumentation framework to better fit in an engineering design context.


NSF Award DRL #1503436


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy



Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Alejandra J. Magana

Additional Committee Member 2

Sanjay Rebello

Additional Committee Member 3

Carina M. Rebello

Additional Committee Member 4

Lisa Bosman