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Embodied cognition for lasting collaborative engineering design education

Thursday, 29 February 2024

Written by: Merel Engelsman

Once graduated, many of the complex challenges that engineers will face are best addressed working collaboratively. Gitte van Helden, a 4TU.CEE PhD candidate in Delft, develops instructional design principles to teach the underlying skills, such as project management, in a meaningful and lasting manner.

Agile, Six Sigma, Scrum, Lean; there are many popular methods and frameworks for Collaborative Engineering Design (CED) and project management. Recognising their importance for complex problem-solving in multidisciplinary settings, higher educational institutions incorporate these in the curriculum of their engineering students.

Lacking alternatives, however, they are often taught using a traditional educational approach involving step-by-step tutorials accompanied by demonstrations of desired behaviours – an approach many educators consider ineffective. Partnering with the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, the 4TU Centre for Engineering Education (4TU.CEE) supports van Helden’s PhD research into enhancing collaborative learning and design in Engineering Education.

''I believe that applying an embodied cognition perspective to collaborative design education may yield a more meaningful and lasting experience''

Embodied cognition

“The difficulty is that Collaborative Engineering Design activities are too complex to be rigidly scripted,” van Helden says. “The consequence is that students often improvise their way through such a project, thereby not truly ingraining the project management method that is the learning objective. I believe that applying an embodied cognition perspective to collaborative design education may yield a more meaningful and lasting experience. Thereby better preparing the students for using these skills effectively in the real world.”

Embodied cognition recognises that interaction with the physical environment is central to learning. Explaining a student what they need to do, thus is less meaningful than letting students uncover new behaviour through experience. Embodied cognition has been extensively researched in many fields, including the teaching of scientific and mathematical concepts such as proportions or sine functions. But van Helden likely is the first person to apply it to Collaborative Engineering Design. “Specifically, I want to develop instructional design principles that allow an effective learning of new practices and tools.”


Creating a need

Key to her approach, which she developed within the Space Systems Engineering research group, is the idea that learned behaviour emerges in response to a problem. Therefore, rather than spelling out desired behaviour, van Helden has the students discover the necessary project management actions themselves by exposing them to specific problems.

“My first instructional design principle therefore is to create a need for a certain action,” she says. “This includes creating an environment that encourages the desired action. In our first workshop, aimed at learning Scrum project management, we for example provided some digital tools they could use to centrally collect tasks. Without telling them that they needed to create a project backlog and sprint backlog, of course.”


''Rather than spelling out desired behaviour, we have the students discover the necessary actions for themselves by exposing them to specific problems''

Back to the real world

Even so, the problem-solving behaviour that emerges will not always exactly be in line with the collaborative design method being taught. The second instructional design principle therefore is to have the students reflect on their actions. “The tutor is essential as he or she guides students to identify their actions and put words to them,” van Helden explains. “It is through these reflections that both the actions and verbalizations (terminology) of the students can be refined.” Simply put, what Scrum project management defines to be a ‘sprint’, they should also call and think of as being a sprint. “In our example workshop, we asked the students to create a timeline of their actions and then map Scrum terminology on top of that.”

The third and final instructional design principle is to make sure that the task and environmental constraints of the collaborative design project resemble what they may encounter in the real world. “Putting them under time pressure during the workshop may trigger them to estimate the duration of tasks later on, which is an essential part of Scrum management.”


On camera

Whereas many innovations in the engineering education research field are evaluated by asking students to fill out a survey, van Helden had good reason to go the next step. “I have very clear expectations about the behaviour triggered by our workshops,” she says. “As such, I filmed various groups of students during their Collaborative Space Design Project to investigate whether the expected behaviour actually occurred.”

She is currently analysing these videos, looking for indications that her instructional design principles have positively affected students’ behaviour. Preliminary results show that students must truly experience the problems they’re exposed to, for them to show the desired behaviour. But also that students may still bring their own, sometimes counterproductive, tools to subsequent collaborative design practices. “It is research, so things do not always go as expected,” van Helden says smilingly.



Upcoming academic year, van Helden will do a few more iterations on the Scrum workshop, allowing her further tweaking of her instructional design principles. She furthermore aims to have embodied cognition perspective to collaborative design education applied in by educators of courses outside the field of space engineering – fitting the 4TU and TU Delft commitment to redefining and advancing Collaborative Design Education.