Purdue University Graduate School
Johnston_Dissertation_4.24.20.pdf (2.22 MB)

Teacher Talk in Engineering Design Projects

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posted on 2020-04-28, 13:52 authored by Amanda JohnstonAmanda Johnston

Teacher talk is a major way in which instructors support and provide scaffolding for their students, frame their pedagogies, model ways of thinking, and convey ideas. Effective teacher talk about engineering design at all levels of students’ educational experiences has the potential to better prepare students for success in engineering and increase the diversity of engineering fields. However, the most effective ways for teachers to talk to their students during engineering design are not well understood. This three-study dissertation examines the ways in which instructors use talk to interact with their students through a variety of different engineering design settings and contexts, with potential implications to improve and educate how teachers present engineering to their students. Overall, this thesis addresses the research question: How do instructors (teachers and professors) use talk interactions to scaffold students in engineering design? The first study is a case study that focuses on the whole class verbal interactions of an experienced and successful teacher throughout the entirety of a month-long life science-based STEM integration unit in a 6th grade classroom. Results show that this teacher’s talk helped to integrate engineering with the science and mathematics content of the unit and modeled the practices of informed designers to help students learn engineering in the context of their science classroom. He framed lessons around problem scoping, incorporated engineering ideas into scientific verbal interactions and aligned individual lessons and the overall unit with the engineering design process. The second study uses naturalistic inquiry to examine how six different teachers of 6th, 7th, and 8th grades talked to their students while the students were actively working in small teams on engineering design projects. Results indicate that the teachers had conversations with the students about many areas of engineering, demonstrating that middle school teachers can have high-level conversations with their students about their design ideas. However, when students struggle to communicate their ideas, the different levels of support outlined in the coding framework and examples provide a structure of support for teachers to give their students. Additionally, there were many areas of engineering that were underemphasized in the teachers’ talk and each teacher had different emphasis. The third study examines how professors in mechanical and biomedical engineering talk to their students during introductory engineering design projects. Results show that the three professors used their talk to support their role as a guide and mentor to students during their projects, although they had different goals with their mentoring. They used their talk to push students’ ideas to consider their problems more broadly, encouraged students to brainstorm diverse out-of-the-box ideas, supported teaming, and modeled engineering language. They maintained a focus on non-technical content, including the iterative nature of design, teaming, and communication, but made references to how students would apply this knowledge in future, more technical projects. The professors supported many challenges for novice designers, including supporting prototype development to represent ideas and iterating to improve their ideas, but were not comprehensive in their support of other challenges, especially problem scoping, testing and troubleshooting, and reflecting on the process. The final chapter of this dissertation presents a synthesis across the three studies and a summary of the implications for teaching. These implications include many examples of high-quality engineering conversations with students at different levels of their education, identification of aspects of engineering education that are underemphasized in teachers’ talk to their students, and connections to needed areas of support and professional development for teachers.


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Directorate for Engineering

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Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Engineering Education

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Tamara Moore

Additional Committee Member 2

S. Selcen Guzey

Additional Committee Member 3

Kerrie Douglas

Additional Committee Member 4

Matt Ohland

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