UW News

March 5, 2014

Reflection makes sense: New initiative prompts engineering students to look back to go forward

UW News

Asking students to reflect on and learn from their educational experiences is crucial to academic and career successes. But bringing this element of reflection into teaching practices remains a significant challenge, especially in engineering education.

The University of Washington’s Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching has received a $4.4 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to develop and promote teaching practices that help undergraduate engineering students reflect on their experiences. The award establishes the Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education that focuses on first- and second-year undergraduates who want to be engineers, especially those from underrepresented populations. The goal is to enhance their ability to learn, help a greater percentage complete their degrees and ultimately foster a larger and better prepared engineering workforce that the global economy requires.

U of Washington

University of Washington graduate students work on a group project in class.U of Washington

“We need to graduate engineers who are thinking broadly when they enter the working world and are capable of developing solutions for the challenges our society faces,” said Cindy Atman, director of the engineering center and a professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering.

The UW-led consortium will involve a group of 12 higher education institutions, including community colleges, four-year colleges and research universities. Organizers aim to involve nearly 250 educators across the 12 institutions and collect data from 18,000 student experiences. Each institution will get $200,000 over two academic years to fund a principal investigator and other colleagues to carry out the work. The tools and practices developed through this initiative will be brought to engineering programs nationwide.

Reflection – giving meaning to prior experiences and determining how that meaning will guide future actions – has long been recognized as important in higher education. Research has established a relationship between reflection and follow-through in academics, finding that small-scale challenges – such as a bad test score or a difficult homework assignment – can accumulate and influence a student’s decision to leave her or his engineering program.

“The one thing you can count on in education is that students will have challenging experiences they will need to reflect on,” said Jennifer Turns, a professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering and faculty affiliate with the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching. Turns is co-leading the new initiative at the UW.

“If you can get students to add an element of reflection that can bump them out of the ‘I don’t belong in engineering’ feeling at the micro-level, you might be able to change their macro-level decision to leave or stay in engineering,” Turns said.

Organizers will start by identifying the institutions in the consortium and begin working with each one to see how educators currently use reflection practices in their teaching. In the following years, consortium leaders will create documents that capture how instructors at each participating school incorporate reflection into the classroom. Leaders will award grants to spearhead new projects that creatively bring reflection into classrooms and track the effects on learning and student retention.

University of Washington graduate students talk about their projects in class.

University of Washington graduate students talk about their projects in class.U of Washington

Project leaders expect the consortium’s work will be useful across all disciplines in higher education. The practice of taking a broader view of learning by emphasizing reflection is something that can benefit all students and their educators, regardless of the field.

“There is this really important sense-making process that has to happen, and we forget sometimes that students need help doing it,” Turns said. “When I ask students what surprised them in a specific learning situation, they get a chance to pause and think about what that surprise means. In the process, their blind spots get surfaced and sometimes mine do, too.”

The goal in choosing a range of schools is to tailor types of reflection practices to what students need at different institutions. For example, a student at a community college who is hoping to enroll in an engineering program likely has different needs than a second-year university student who is already taking engineering classes. Similarly, educators and advisers need the tools to encourage different types of reflection, depending on students’ needs.

“The project design tries to celebrate the local culture. Each educator has a kind of expertise that we want to reveal,” Atman said.


For more information, contact Atman at atman@uw.edu or 206-616-2171 and Turns at jturns@uw.edu or 206-221-3650.