Teaching Engineering Students About Cognitive Barriers During Design for Sustainable Infrastructure
McWhirter, Nathan Daniel
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Sustainability is a complex socio-technical challenge that requires new ways of thinking. To help meet this challenge, I have created three case-based modules that teach engineering students how to apply sustainability principles and help them recognize potential cognitive traps, or barriers, that may prevent more consideration for sustainability during design. Each of my three case studies is built into a PowerPoint-guided module for undergraduate engineering classes, which may be taught in 1-3 class days. I have implemented each of the three modules in senior-level classes at Virginia Tech, assessed survey data, and scored student assignments. This work and the underlying literature background is reflected in three journal papers, one for each module. My case study modules, along with all associated teaching materials, are shared in the Center for Sustainable Engineering repository for other instructors to adapt and use. Each module includes a case study about an infrastructure project recognized and awarded by the Envision rating system, demonstrating a case of sustainability done well. Adaptable PowerPoint slides are used to teach about the Envision rating system and credits particularly relevant to the project. Active learning assignments allow students to apply the Envision framework and design criteria to complex and ill-structured problems related to the case study. Slides also cover the relation of three selected behavioral decision science concepts to each case study; these include cognitive biases and barriers which tend to inhibit sustainability outcomes, as well as some potential solutions to mitigate or overcome such barriers. Paired with the decision-making framework of Envision, awareness of these transdisciplinary concepts will allow students to more effectively manage the complex decisions found in real-world projects. Results were assessed through a variety of methods to determine the modules' level of effectiveness in accomplishing defined student learning outcomes. Pre-module and post-module student surveys were employed to measure several indicators: changes in self-assessed confidence levels, perceptions of sustainable design (characteristics and barriers), and accuracy of module concept definitions. Each of several active learning assignments was scored on a simple rubric. Concept maps were also tested as further type of assessment, and scored with both traditional and holistic methods. However, fully integrating the concept mapping approach is left to the future work of others. These modules are a significant contribution to engineering education, as they integrate diverse topics and disciplines into a unified and relevant teaching package. Over 350 students have already been reached through the three modules, and sharing the materials in a peer-reviewed repository allows for expansion, adaptation, and capacity building. Each module's content and pedagogy align with ABET accreditation requirements and ASCE's Body of Knowledge, making them relevant tools for equipping the future generation of engineers. Future development of similar case studies can build partnerships between academia and industry, as well as increase cross-disciplinary collaboration. These efforts will both improve undergraduate education and advance the profession.
- Masters Theses