Not all Constraints are Equal: Stewardship and Boundaries of Sustainability as Viewed by First-Year Engineering Students

Johannes Strobel
School of Engineering Education, Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Purdue University
CIVL 167A, West Lafayette, IN, 47907, USA
E-mail: jstrobel@purdue.edu

Inez Hua
Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering and School of Civil Engineering, Purdue University
CIVL 2127, West Lafayette, IN, 47907, USA
E-mail: hua@ecn.purdue.edu

Jun Fang
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Purdue University
BRNG 3134, West Lafayette, IN, 47907, USA
E-mail: jfang@purdue.edu

Constance Harris
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Purdue University
BRNG 3134, West Lafayette, IN, 47907, USA
E-mail: harris11@purdue.edu

Abstract:
The overall purpose of this research was to research attitudes and threshold concepts (key concepts or gate keeper concepts) of beginning engineering students towards the relationship between environment/ecology and engineering specifically towards choosing: either (a) engineering as a career to make an environmental impact or (b) choosing environmental and ecological engineering as a specific engineering profession. The project was situated in the context of life cycle analysis and the environmental impacts of design, manufacturing, use and disposal of products. The study employed also an innovative research design: The researchers investigated students’ conceptions and attitudes (and change of both) by asking students to co-design an educational game with them—through a series of workshops. Of particular focus was the change of students’ conceptual understanding of core environmental and ecological concepts during the design process. First, we reported the results of a survey of 1437 first-year engineering students at the Purdue University, West Lafayette campus. The survey tested student knowledge of environmental issues, their prioritization of sustainable development in various contexts, and also explored student attitude toward change. We observed positive correlations between the high school science courses or high school environmental education, and the average environmental knowledge scores. There was no difference in average knowledge scores when comparing male and female students. In addition, we reported the results of an analysis of students’ data as collected within the workshops. Second, we reported on preliminary findings on the participatory design workshops (n=24). The study revealed several areas of ‘troublesome’ knowledge of students.

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