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Visual representations guide students’ problem-solving and use of conceptual knowledge in Statics

Event Date: October 12, 2017
Speaker: Nichole Johnson
Speaker Affiliation: PhD Student, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Location: ARMS B071
Priority: No
School or Program: Engineering Education
College Calendar: Show
Nichole Johnson
Nichole Johnson
The October 12, 2017 ENE Research Seminar is presented by Nichole Johnson, PhD Student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her work is focused on the intersection of cognition, visual representations, and problem-solving.

Equilibrium is a fundamental concept in engineering. It is often first introduced from an engineering perspective in Statics, requiring students to consider mechanical equilibrium both externally and internally for mechanical systems. When sketching shear force and bending moments in Statics problems, students coordinate equilibrium in schematics, free-body diagrams, equations, and student-generated graphs. Features in each of these representations can prompt students to apply equilibrium or distract students from applying equilibrium. For example, applied loads are shown external to the beam, making it more difficult to consider internal equilibrium. If we are to improve how students learn engineering concepts, such as equilibrium, from various types of representations, then we need to understand the interplay between features of the representation, what concepts these representations help students learn, and how students access their knowledge when problem-solving with these representations.

To explore this interplay, we conducted think-aloud interviews with students sketching shear force and bending moment diagrams. Analysis of these interviews revealed that the visually salient features joint type and arrows guide students reasoning. Students engage in problem-solving using these features via the strategies of object translation and heuristic-based reasoning rather than the concept of equilibrium.


Nicole received her B.S. in Engineering Physics at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) in May 2013. She is currently a PhD candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to her Materials Science research on charge capture in solar cells, Nicole is investigating the interplay between problem-solving with engineering representations and what knowledge students access when problem-solving with those representations. Outside of research she helps organize the Girls Learning About Materials summer camp for high school girls and helps run a TA professional development course. She plans to be a professor at a four-year university, teaching engineering courses, promoting diversity within engineering, and researching classroom interventions to improve student learning.