Students receive awards at AIChE national meeting
November 21, 2023
New research project explores impact of giving engineering students more freedom in the lab
February 9, 2023 - by Kim Delker
A team from The University of New Mexico is leading a new National Science Foundation-funded research project to examine the issue of agency — the power to make one’s own decisions — when it comes to the ability for chemical engineering students to have more flexibility in designing and developing laboratory experiments for class.
The grant, called “Agency in Chemical Engineering Experiments,” is led by Vanessa Svihla, a UNM learning scientist, and Eva Chi, a professor of chemical and biological engineering. They are collaborating with researchers at Montana State University to investigate how different approaches to teaching laboratory experiments impact students’ learning and development as chemical engineers.
Chi, who teaches a laboratory course for chemical engineering undergraduates, said the goal of this study is to determine how best the engineering students of today — who were raised on a steady stream of technology and have recently endured a pandemic — learn and interpret information.
“The pandemic changed a lot of things,” she said. “It forced us to let students have more agency in how they learned, giving them options. And from that we saw a huge variation in what was done and how students reacted to it.”
She said often what professors think motivates students has little to no impact. For instance, Chi said one UNM professor decided to present a challenge to his lab students by giving them an assignment to collect data, based on a pre-prescribed set of parameters, with the enticement that the data they collected would be part of a published research article.
“What we discovered was that it wasn’t authentic to them,” she said. “A publication was not relevant to them, so it did not motivate them. It felt a lot like a recipe, just following a series of steps.”
Svihla points out that for chemical engineers, laboratory experiments play a crucial role in their professional formation, yet at many institutions, lab courses have changed little over the decades, with most modernization efforts primarily focused on equipment, content and procedures, not the amount of control students have over how they conduct experiments.
“There are many different decisions students could make — in other words, many ways they could have agency — from choosing variables to choosing which audience to report their results to,” she said. “This project will evaluate the effect of giving students differing levels of agency throughout the experiment on the students’ lab experience.”
Svihla, who holds faculty titles in both the School of Engineering and the Organization, Information and Learning Sciences (OILS) program, is no stranger to examining the topic of agency and changing the way engineering is taught. In 2018, she won an NSF CAREER Award for “Framing and Reframing Agency in Making and Engineering (FRAME).” She (along with Chi) also was one of the researchers on the recently-concluded “FACETS: Formation of Accomplished Chemical Engineers for Transforming Society” project that focused on transforming engineering education.
She said in this project, the team will examine the agency students might have, differentiating between “lower agency” and “consequential agency,” which is defined as having and taking up opportunities to make decisions that are consequential to how students learn, to what students learn, and to the learning activities themselves.
“In the context of a laboratory experiment, this means that students can make decisions that affect later steps of their work,” she said. “For instance, if students choose some parameters of their experiment, this impacts the data they collect and the kinds of analysis they will do.”
Chi said the crux of this new project is related to that broad goal of the previous FACETS study of determining how best to have an impact on engineering students and how to engage them throughout the undergraduate program.
“We want to find out the types of things that motivate students and eventually develop curriculum that supports those methods, not just in lab classes but also in lecture courses, which can feel especially impersonal,” she said.
The project will investigate existing upper-division, undergraduate laboratory experiments across two chemical engineering programs — one at UNM and one at Montana State. Students will be assessed using what is called the Agency Levels in Learning Opportunities Tool that will measure students’ perceptions of agency and engineering identity via survey questions.
“We are seeking to better understand how such courses can better support student development toward independent problem-solving and communication, thus producing graduates better prepared for the challenges of professional engineering,” Svihla said.
Chi said another aspect of this project is the ability to test methods on different populations of students. UNM, being a Hispanic-Serving Institution, is a diverse community with a high population of underrepresented students, and Montana State, which is a lot more homogenous.
“It will be interesting to see if there are differences in outcomes based on racial, ethnic, gender or socioeconomic factors,” Chi said.
After the data is collected and analyzed, Chi said a key part of the project will be to get the word out in the education and engineering community, through conferences, publications and workshops, with the intent of disrupting the way that engineering has traditionally been taught and providing a framework for curriculum and course design transformation.
“In my own teaching, I see this information already in the background of how I teach,” she said.
Svihla said the team will ensure that the recommendations they make are ultimately feasible for faculty to implement.
“One approach for increasing agency is to use course-based research projects, but this is daunting for many faculty. In contrast, we are doing studies to investigate smaller, more feasible changes that can have a big impact,” she said.
The project began Feb. 1 and continues through Jan. 31, 2026.