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Professor Michael J. Scott receives NSF grant to study ‘functional reasoning’

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Professor Michael J. Scott was recently awarded nearly $200,000 from the National Science Foundation for a project entitled “Development of a Concept Inventory for Functional Reasoning.” He is heavily involved in the development and implementation of new curriculum, in particular for design related topics, in engineering at UIC.

“The objective is to better the teaching and learning of the concept of function in mechanical engineering,” said Professor Scott. “The central learning goal is for students to be able to decompose a simple mechanical system and correctly analyze it in terms of the functions performed by its subsystems, components, and features.”

The project takes functional reasoning as a starting point to tackle the issue of how to best prepare and retain beginning engineering students at the majority of educational institutions in the United States. An advantage of this approach is that students gain a better understanding of what engineering entails, and are better prepared and motivated to handle the ensuing curriculum.

According to Scott, functional reasoning distinguishes engineering design from other types of human design. By thinking in terms of functions, which is analyzing devices in terms of what they do, engineers are able to make design requirements concrete, specific, quantitative and measurable.

“Functional reasoning is fundamental to engineering thinking,” said Professor Scott. “As there are no validated methods to assess student understanding of function, the bulk of the proposed research is the development and validation of a new concept inventory for functional reasoning. We will apply accepted best practices in the development of the concept inventory.”

When the grant concludes, Scott’s next course of action is to pilot instructional methods to teach functional reasoning and use the new concept inventories to assess how well they work. Additionally, UIC will leverage its ties with its colleagues at community colleges — who are also leaders at the Illinois Articulation Initiative — to disseminate the results to a larger audience.

“The broader impacts of the proposal lie in the improved teaching of functional reasoning in the near term at the institutions involved in the proposal, and in the longer term throughout the country,” said Scott. “The ultimate impact is a better-prepared and more diverse national pool of engineers.”

The grant period is from September 1, 2015 to August 31, 2017. To learn more, please contact Professor Scott here.