Purdue University Graduate School
Ehsan_Hoda dissertation submission.pdf (3.06 MB)

A Multiple Case Study to Capture and Support the Engineering Design Thinking of Children with Mild Autism

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posted on 2020-07-30, 00:51 authored by Hoda EhsanHoda Ehsan

Research in pre-college engineering education has been on a sharp rise in the last two decades. However, less research has been conducted to explore and characterize the engineering thinking and engagement of young children, with limited attention to children with special needs. Conversations on broadening participation and diversity in engineering usually center around gender, socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, and to a lesser extent on neurodiversity. Autism is the fastest growing neurodiverse population who have the potential to succeed in engineering. In order to promote the inclusion of children with autism in engineering education, we need to gain a deep understanding of their engineering experiences.

The overarching research question that I intend to answer is how do children with mild autism engage in engineering design tasks? Grounding this study in theories of Constructivism and Defectology, I focused on children’s engagement in engineering design practices and the ways their parents supported their engagements. To engage children with mild autism in engineering, I have developed an engineering design activity by considering suggestions from these theories and previous literature on elementary-aged children’s engagement in engineering design, and by focusing on individuals with mild autism strengths in STEM. This activity provides opportunities for children to interact with their parents while solving engineering design problems. The families are asked to use a construction kit and design their solutions to the problem introduced in the engineering design activity. The engineering design activity consists of a series of five challenges, ranging from well- to ill-structed.

This is an exploratory qualitative case study, using a multiple case approach. These cases include 9-year-old children with autism and their families. Video recordings of the families are the main source of data for this study. Triangulation of data happens through interviewing parents and children, pictures of children’s artifacts (i.e. their prototypes), and use of the Empathizing-Systemizing survey to capture background information and autism characteristics. Depending on the data source, I utilized different methods including video analysis, thematic analysis and artifact analysis.

This study expands our understanding of what engineering design can look like when enacted by children with mild autism, particularly as engineering design is considered to be a very iterative process with multiple phases and actions associated with it. The findings of this study show that these children can engage in all engineering design phases in a very iterative process. Similarities and differences between these children’s design behaviors and the existing literature were discussed. Additionally, some of the behaviors these children engaged in resemble the practices of experienced designers and engineers. The findings of this study suggest that while children were not socially interacting with their family members when addressing the challenges, their parents played an important role in their design engagement. Parents used different strategies during the activity that supported and facilitated children’s engineering design problem-solving. These strategies include soliciting information, providing guidance, assisting both verbally and hands-on, disengagement and being a student of the child.

This study provides aspirations for future research with the aim to promote the inclusion of children with neurodiversity. It calls for conducting similar research in different settings to capture the engineering design engagement of children with mild autism when interacting with teachers, peers, siblings in different environments. Additionally, the findings of this study have implications for educators and curators of engineering learning resources.


Bilsland Dissertation Fellowship


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Engineering Education

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Monica Cardella

Additional Committee Member 2

Mary Pilotte

Additional Committee Member 3

Mandy Rispoli

Additional Committee Member 4

Morgan Hynes

Additional Committee Member 5

Stephanie Z Masta

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