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A recent three-year, $458,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Tuskegee University researchers to assess academic success among students studying engineering and other STEM disciplines.
The project — “Tolerance of Ambiguity and Student Success” — is a collaboration between the university’s Aerospace Science Engineering and Mathematics departments. The study will investigate how students develop intellectually from a dualistic view of the world to a relativistic understanding of the challenges in context of engineering in particular and STEM in general.
Leading the research team are Dr. Javed Khan, professor and head of the Department of Aerospace Science Engineering who will serve as the project’s principal investigator, and Dr. Chadia Aji, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, who will serve as its co-principal investigator.
“To be successful, engineers as well as other STEM professionals have to develop tolerance of ambiguity, as real-world problems do not have black-and-white solutions. Rather, a range of solutions often exist, and selecting from among those is an exercise in trade-offs,” explained Khan.
“Students usually look to their teachers as the authority figure when they are in school, and whatever the teacher tells them is accepted as the right answer –– And, they assume that is the only answer,” said Aji. “But it’s vital to realize in STEM fields that a problem may not have just one solution — it may have one optimum solution and several other feasible solutions. You have to choose which solution to accept,” added Aji.
Khan said that both he and Aji came up with the idea of the study while trying to understand how STEM students learn, and understand how to increase student academic success and hence improve retention.
“During my teaching, I’ve observed that students continue to expect a problem to have only one solution,” noted Khan.
According to Khan, the study will identify how students develop their critical thinking skills and what interventions can support their tolerance of ambiguity.
“We are looking to find out if students are able to determine feasible solutions to open-ended questions, or are they expecting only one exact answer,” Khan emphasized.
The study, which started this fall, has begun collecting survey responses from participating freshmen to establish a baseline to see where students are located on the ambiguity spectrum. Later in the fall, study researchers will redesign two courses in aerospace engineering and mathematics to deliberately present students with problems that can be solved with multiple solutions. Students ranging from freshmen to seniors will learn how to develop their critical-thinking skills.
“The expected outcome is that students will feel confident to solve open-ended problems and enable them to choose between the appropriate solutions,” added Aji.
Khan says, at the completion of the project, he hopes to share the team’s research findings with other Tuskegee faculty as well as other researchers so they too are aware of how to deepen the development of student thinking.
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