Learning to design and designing to learn
Vanessa Svihla

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of New Mexico

Primary Discipline

Science Education
The students who present the greatest need– those who are underrepresented in science and engineering and who come from low socioeconomic groups– are the least likely to receive authentic, intellectually engaging learning experiences. Diversity matters for the future of STEM fields; diversity is a critical resource for the kinds of perspective-taking that results in innovative solutions to grand challenges. The goals of this project are (1) to identify teacher-guided strategies that allow underserved, underrepresented, struggling learners to engage in problem finding and problem framing, and (2) to document connections between such experiences and learning. These goals are investigated in the context of students designing. While a great deal is known about problem solving, problem finding and framing are much less studied and understood, especially in relation to how they can support learning.Project activities include examining designing as a learning process, and in particular, as a way to support struggling, underserved learners by providing a context in which learners have agency and see instrumentality in what they are learning. Instrumentality describes the degree to which an individual considers something s/he is learning to be useful in his/her future. Essentially, when students don’t see a need to learn something, their learning tends to be negatively impacted. Designing places the learner in an agentive position, meaning that the learner has the power to make and carry out decisions. This study explores the following research questions: 1) How do teachers guide struggling, underserved learners to engage in design processes- specifically problem finding and framing? 2) How do problem finding and framing provide opportunities for increasing agency and instrumentality? 3) To what extent do measures of design authenticity, instrumentality and agency explain variance in student learning?In order to accomplish project goals, I will engage in field-based data collection, analysis and dissemination. In Phase 1, I will document student learning and interactions across two design projects, spending 1-2 days per week at the field site engaged in data collection, including collecting video records, design artifacts (examples of student work), and surveys. Concurrent to and following this, I will conduct interaction analysis (Phase 2). Regression modeling will occur in Phase 3. Triangulation of data sets will compare qualitative and quantitative findings (Phase 4).The participants (N~100) are teachers and students at a charter school whose mission involves high impact—that is, they seek to serve those who have not been well-served by traditional schooling. Neither traditional nor a trade school, this hybrid charter, grounded in notions of funds of knowledge, builds on students’ strengths (e.g., a student organizes gang activity; the teachers see that she knows how to organize, and they work with that strength). The mission of this school is to serve “the bottom 15%” of students. The students are 80% Latino and male, over 80% off-track to graduation, and over 90% free/reduced lunch. The school includes a focus on engineering and architectural design, informed by industry partners. The school has seen success in its three-year tenure, with 86% retention and increases on state standardized test scores. Recently, three students successfully completed a university engineering course and over 90% of the graduates have gone on to college or internships. Students develop and demonstrate mastery in state standards across 2-5 projects per semester.
About Vanessa Svihla
Dr. Vanessa Svihla is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico. She received an M.S. in Geology and a Ph.D. in Science Education from The University of Texas at Austin. She served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines (1998-2000), was a post-doctoral scholar in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley and interned at the Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center, University of Washington. She chaired the AERA special interest group, Learning Sciences (2010-2011). She directs the Interaction and Disciplinary Design in Educational Activity (IDDEA) Lab. Dr. Svihla is a learning scientist who studies learning in authentic, real world conditions; this includes a two-strand research program focused on (1) authentic assessment, often aided by interactive technology, and (2) design learning, in which she studies engineers designing devices, scientists designing investigations, teachers designing learning experiences and students designing to learn. She is passionate about interdisciplinary research as a means to find innovative solutions and applies integrated methods (interaction analysis, regression modeling, temporal analysis, design-based research and network analysis) to investigate complex phenomena.

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