Beyond the Classroom: Understanding the Educational Significance of Non-Curricular Engineering Design Experiences

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Virginia Tech


The purpose of my dissertation study is to better understand the educational experiences of undergraduate engineering students within non-curricular learning environments, specifically in the form of extracurricular engineering groups or programs. I first conducted a content analysis of engineering education literature to identify where engineering design learning occurs, and to synthesize the implications of studies regarding engineering design learning. Aiming to fill a gap in the literature regarding non-curricular learning contexts, this study investigated what extracurricular groups and programs can educationally provide undergraduate engineering students by observing and interviewing students engaging in these environments. This study also aimed to identify if and how engineering students find navigational flexibility within engineering curricula, and how non-curricular learning environments might provide navigational flexibility.

With regard to where engineering design learning occurs, the literature points to various educational contexts that effectively deliver engineering design education. Strategies that involve authentic and longer-term engineering design experiences tend to be the most impactful in terms of student outcomes and perceptions, however those experiences are not always implementable at larger scale. More traditional educational approaches to engineering design learning, though less impactful, are still effective delivery methods for introducing key aspects of engineering design education (e.g. modeling, global/societal/economic/environmental factors, communication skills). However, there was limited literature regarding more non-curricular learning experiences, such as learning in designed settings, outreach learning, learning media, and everyday informal learning. This literature review is one of the first attempts towards synthesizing where and how engineering design learning occurs, and has identified a significant gap in the literature regarding non-curricular educational settings.

Addressing the identified gap in engineering education literature regarding non-curricular learning experiences, this dissertation study investigated five non-curricular engineering learning sites for undergraduate engineering students at a large research-driven state institution. Informed by the preliminary findings of a pilot study, I first investigated the salient features of engineering-related non-curricular activities from the students' perspectives using a self-directed learner autonomy framework to guide the study. Students participating in extracurricular engineering environments exhibited strong attributes of self-directed learners, particularly a willingness and ability to be challenged and to learn. The educational environments of the extracurricular opportunities cultivated these self-directed learning attributes by providing students a space to be exposed to an engineering community, authentic engineering work, and accessible resources. Findings from this portion of the dissertation indicated necessary modifications to the self-directed learner autonomy framework used to guide this study. The modified framework contributes a possible approach towards future assessment or research pursuits regarding non-curricular learning experiences in engineering.

I also investigated the role non-curricular activities play in providing engineering students navigational flexibility through engineering curricula. Extracurricular engineering environments afford navigational flexibility by offering students opportunities to work on motivating challenges with and among supportive communities. By providing a space for students to express their engineering selves in primarily self-directed ways, extracurricular engineering experiences cultivate students' drive to find and pursue personally meaningful curricular and non-curricular educational experiences. However, institutional barriers, particularly time constraints and institutionally recognized achievements, stifle students' flexibility and willingness to pursue personally meaningful experiences. The findings of this study have helped uncover the various affordances non-curricular learning experiences provide engineering students, but more importantly, have identified the institutional barriers that prevent students from taking full advantage of non-curricular learning experiences. Based on these findings, I recommend that university and program level structures be reevaluated to encourage and provide students with more flexibility to find personalized learning experiences in and out of the classroom.



Engineering Education, Engineering Design Education, Non-curricular Learning, Self-Directed Learning, Navigational Flexibility