Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy



Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Joseph L. Polman, PhD


Navarro, Virginia L

Rogers, Rebecca L

Gibbons, Patrick C


Educating K-12 students in the processes of design engineering is gaining popularity in public schools. Several states have adopted standards for engineering design despite the fact that no common agreement exists on what should be included in the K-12 engineering design process. Furthermore, little pre-service and in-service professional development exists that will prepare teachers to teach a design process that is fundamentally different from the science teaching process found in typical public schools. This study provides a glimpse into what teachers think happens in engineering design compared to articulated best practices in engineering design.

Wenger’s communities of practice work and van Dijk’s multidisciplinary theory of mental models provide the theoretical bases for comparing the mental models of two groups of elementary teachers (one group that teaches engineering and one that does not) to the mental models of design engineers (including this engineer/researcher/educator and professionals described elsewhere). The elementary school teachers and this engineer/researcher/educator observed the design engineering process enacted by professionals, then answered questions designed to elicit their mental models of the process they saw in terms of how they would teach it to elementary students.

The key finding is this: Both groups of teachers embedded the cognitive steps of the design process into the matrix of the social and emotional roles and skills of students. Conversely, the engineers embedded the social and emotional aspects of the design process into the matrix of the cognitive steps of the design process. In other words, teachers’ mental models show that they perceive that students’ social and emotional communicative roles and skills in the classroom drive their cognitive understandings of the engineering process, while the mental models of this engineer/researcher/educator and the engineers in the video show that we perceive that cognitive understandings of the engineering process drive the social and emotional roles and skills used in that process. This comparison of mental models with the process that professional designers use defines a problem space for future studies that investigate how to incorporate engineering practices into elementary classrooms. Recommendations for engineering curriculum development and teacher professional development based on this study are presented.

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