S6-CT6-2 - Fostering learning communities in engineering design education - A Critical Discourse Analysis Engineering Syllabi

3. Research Full Paper
Rubaina Khan1 , Jim Slotta1
1 University of Toronto

The present research is situated in a four-year engineering program at a large urban Canadian university, in which students engage in design courses across all four years of their undergraduate journey. Through program evaluation - particularly graduate attributes analysis – the program has identified two key concerns related to this “design spine”. First, students expressed that they see few connections amongst their design experiences, even though they are being exposed to different perspectives on the field. Second, third-year students cannot articulate the purpose of their experience and connect it with their chosen major. The present research aims to improve the quality and efficacy of the program and with it the undergraduate student’s experience by introducing a learning community approach that will help students to learn about design, build disciplinary connections and develop a coherent understanding of problem-solving within their field.

The study adopts the theoretical perspective of learning communities, informed by two frameworks:  The Fostering Communities of Learners (FCL) program and the Knowledge Community and Inquiry (KCI) model. FCL transformed inner-city classrooms into science learning communities and engaged students in conceptually rich domains of scientific inquiry (Brown & Campione, 1996). KCI expanded on FCL, adding the notion of a curricular “script” that specifies activity sequences, materials, student groupings, and technology elements. In KCI designs, students work together as a community, building upon each other’s knowledge and nurturing a collective epistemology. (Slotta Quintana & Moher, 2018).

The purpose of this study is to explore how design engineering courses may be suited to foster engagement within a learning community. We examined a corpus of existing course syllabi using a framework that looks at student learning outcomes, course activities, assessment methods, language used, and particular methods of establishing social and teacher presence. The syllabi provide critical insight into the expectations and requirements of these courses, which can contribute to a learning community design by creating opportunities for student engagement. We performed a critical discourse analysis (CDA) to analyze the syllabi for educational engagement, following the seven tasks of relating function to language from James Gee (2014), who describes critical discourse analysis as a means of uncovering structural regularities and affordances, by examining the language used within the syllabus . Our approach adds to this methodology through its unique approach of analyzing syllabi in terms of a set of key metadata significance, activities, identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge ontologies. These syllabi reflect the underlying pedagogical narratives and epistemic commitments held by their respective professors and are potent sources for analysis because every word serves a function. The syllabi are intricately tied to the social practices that the professor believes should occur in the class, which may also reflect the beliefs of the university. We will present findings related to the application or conversion of these courses into a learning community model. This includes limitations of pedagogical commitments and course structures, as well as particular affordances that could lend themselves to elements of KCI, like knowledge bases and curricular scripts.